Vilhelm Hammershøi was a true master of enigmatic and atmospheric spaces. His interior scenes depicting his own living room in Strandgade 30 in Copenhagen are particularly famous, making him the best-known Danish artist internationally.
Vilhelm Hammershøi’s interior scene from his own living room in Strandgade 30, Copenhagen, certainly deserves a place among the ten greatest highlights at SMK, which owns the largest collection of his works in Denmark.
With its sheer sensuality and refined, simple use of colours, his style holds a strong appeal for Danish and foreign audiences alike. However, international observers often read a rather more sombre mood into his paintings: the quiet, poetic aspects of the paintings take on a melancholy feel when considered in the light of the tradition represented by Nordic writers such as August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen.
The Hammershøi palette most often comprises the colours black, white, grey and brown, but these can encompass myriad shades, and other colours may be mixed in too. When Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor was cleaned in connection with an exhibition in 2012, the conservator identified more than forty different kinds of white in the painting.
Back in his own day, many did not quite understand the finer nuances and simplicity of his colour scheme. Even the Exhibition Committee picking out works for the annual juried exhibitions at Charlottenborg struggled to see Hammerhøi’s qualities and refused to exhibit his works in 1888. Vilhelm Hammershøi speaks very plainly about his way of using colours in an interview in the journal Hver 8. Day in 1907:
‘I honestly do not know why I use just a few, muted colours. It is quite impossible for me to say anything on the matter. It feels natural to me. I most certainly think that a picture works best, in purely coloristic terms, the fewer colours it has’.
Allowing scope for the imagination
Approximately sixty-six of Hammershøi’s paintings of interiors are set in the flat in Strandgade 30, where he lived from 1898 to 1908. This corresponds to almost half of his total production during that period.
In many cases, the subject remains the same from one painting to the next, introducing infinite variety through small shifts to the interior, the light or the figure in the picture. The images are never fully accurate representations of reality; for example, door handles might be omitted, and several areas remain empty.
That is one of the reasons why these images are so compelling. Another has to do with Hammershøi’s ability to allow scope for the imagination and appeal to our senses to the point where we can almost feel the light and the heat. Yet his insistence on an alternative painting style also made people feel unsettled by his art.
‘His pictures are quite dreamlike, so you’re left somewhat in the dark. You become uncertain. I think many people struggled a bit with this in his own day. They were used to something rather more controlled and clear-cut, such as the paintings done by Hammershøi’s teacher, Frederik Vermehren. They were also accustomed to having some small narrative present in the picture, and they didn’t understand where that narrative had gone,’ says art educator Annette Rosenvold Hvidt.
Beauty in a hectic everyday life
Throughout the years, directors such as fellow Dane Carl Th. Dreyer and many artists have been inspired by Hammershøi’s spaces, lighting and moods. Today, we are no longer unsettled by his subject matter; rather, many now feel a sense of calm serenity when looking at his works.
‘Many of us lead hectic everyday lives and need to process large amounts of information. Looking at Hammershøi’s works allows you to slow right down and feel the beauty of the world. There is always something for you to return to. I myself have worked with these pictures for many years, and I’ve sometimes thought there was nothing more to be had. But it seems there always is.’