This work has been requested for the Vilhelm Hammershøi exhibition at the Royal Academy, London (28 June - 7 September 2008) and the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo (30 September - 7 December 2008).
'[Vilhelm] Hammershøi is not one of those about whom one must speak quickly. His work is slow and methodical and in whatever one moment one wishes to grasp it, it must always be with the idea of what is important and purposeful in art'. With these words Rainer Maria Rilke described the painter Vilhelm Hammershøi in 1905.
Rilke travelled to Copenhagen a year earlier to be meet the artist. He was not alone in his wonder for Hammershøi had come to international renown in about 1900 and was similarly admired by Sergei Diaghilev, Thédore Duret and Paul Cassirer among others.
He became popular during his own lifetime largely due to his atmospheric interiors which were to form almost his entire oeuvre. The 17th century brick townhouse in the district of Christianshavn in Copenhagen in which Hammershøi lived with this wife Ida between 1908 and 1909 is associated with the most productive period of his oeuvre and still exists today. There on the first floor of Strandgade 30, Hammershøi painted his sparsely furnished room with very muted tones and great geometric discipline time and again. Sometimes with doors open, sometimes with them closed and by moving different pieces of furniture around the room and by introducing or removing pictures, he was able to alternate the composition and the perspective. The rooms were furnished with only a few 19th century pieces, including two sofas, a wardrobe, a few tables, chairs and a clavier, all of which one repeatedly encounters in Hammershøi's interior scenes and in photographs of the apartment. For Hammershøi this appartment was a painting laboratory in which he created an endless inner monologue.
The painting Det gamle klaver. Strandgade 30 (The Old Piano. Strandgade 30) of 1907 belongs to the series of paintings executed at Strandgade 30 showing a section of the drawing room that looks out on to the street. The centre of the composition is dominated by the piano leaning against the wall. The lid is closed and there is neither score-sheet nor piano stool at the piano. To the left and the right of there are two chairs pushed against the wall, whose purpose is not immediately apparent to the viewer. On the lower part of the wall, above the piano, hangs a framed print, which can be identified as a Golden Age picture by F. L. Bradts entitled View of the new road constructed outside the walls of Nørre Port from 1781 that was in the artist's collection. From the window that is suggested on the left, a very soft light illuminates the scene. If one compares this with a contemporary photograph (fig. 1) documenting this section of the room, one sees that the painter remained relatively true to his model. While the location of the piano is the same as that in the photograph, the present painting has been pared down by the removal of a lamp, a flower vase and other objects. And of the second picture on the left there is no trace.
Hammershøi himself did not play the piano, but had a great affinity with music. In a letter of 1891 Ida described to the artist's sister how she played the piano every day with Vilhelm at her side drumming the melody on the table as she played. Unlike his sisters, he had received no music lessons as a child for he had begun drawing lessons aged eight and throughout his youth would sketch his sisters playing the piano. Some of his closest friends were musicians and composers and one in particular, the Englishman Leonard Borwick, played an important role in raising the artist's profile in England. He intiated Hammershøi's first exhibition in England in 1907 in the gallery E. J. van Wisselingh in which the present work was listed as no. 1.
While he represented the piano in a group of paintings, the closest comparison is with Musikvaerelset. Strandgade 30 (The Music Room. Strandgade 30) of the same year. As well as these empty interiors there is a series of paintings in which he represents Ida by a piano such as in Stue med klaver og rygvendt kvinde. Strandgade 30 (Interior with piano and woman in black. Strandgade 30) (fig. 2). These works were not conceived as a closed series but as individual studies over a period of years. In the literature and visual arts around 1900 the piano was a popular motif for in all bourgeois households this expensive accoutrement was an expression of their increased self-awareness. In the second half of the 19th century it was particularly seen as a status symbol, an instrument of the middle classes but the piano was seen as above all as a 'feminine instrument', the use of which conformed to certain domestic conventions of the time. Within the family it was the wife who played the music, a sign of cultural refinement which suggested an atmosphere of spiritual togetherness and domestic security.
Even when Hammershøi completely integrates the instrument into his interiors it usually serves no purpose and the imaginary notes never seem to enliven the room. And so it is in this way, that the representation of such an instrument intensifies the sense of stillness and lonliness which his contemporaries had already come to recognise as the defining characteristic of Hammershøi's art. In his own lifetime, the artist was compared to Huysman's 'anti-heroes of decadence' and his friend Emil Hannover described him in 1907 as 'the Nordic counterpart of des Esseintes'. With Hammershøi's 'aristocratic, remote and peculiar spirit' and his concentration on interior space, the art historian can see in this finely nuanced colour palette, links to the removed aestheticism of the figure in Huysmans' novel. 'For Hammershøi's exceptionally sensitive soul the only tolerable music were his muted colour tones'.
We are grateful to Dr. Felix Krämer of the Hamburger Kunsthalle and curator of the forthcoming Vilhelm Hammershøi exhibition at the Royal Academy, London in 2008 for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.