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Friday, June 6, 2014

Vilhelm Hammershøi

Portrait of a Young Girl, 1885, Vilhelm Hammershøi (his sister)
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Self-portrait, 1895
With few exceptions, artist tend to be fairly outgoing, personable, and somewhat more lively than most people. Very often these traits tend to be an outright necessity if the artist is to be at all successful. The Danish artist, Vilhelm Hammershøi would appear to be the exception that proves the rule. Born in 1864,  in Copenhagen, Hammershøi was shy, quiet, retiring, highly introverted, almost a recluse, though records show, he and his wife, Ida, traveled broadly throughout Europe before the artist's death from lung cancer in 1916. As a young boy, Vilhelm grew up comfortably in a upper middle-class family with his younger sister. Their father was a well-to-do merchant. The boy studied drawing from childhood, trained under some of the best Danish artists of his time, eventually arriving at the Danish Royal Academy where he graduated around 1883. His painting debut came in 1885 with a highly acclaimed Portrait of a Young Girl (his sister, top).
The Artist's Mother, 1896,
Vilhelm Hammershøi.
Arrangement in Black and Gray, 1871,
James McNeill Whistler
In gazing upon Hammershøi's works, one can't help but draw immediate comparisons to those of the American expatriate, James McNeill Whistler, who was a generation older than his Danish counterpart. It's uncertain whether the two knew each other. (Hammershøi worked in London for a period of time, as did Whistler.) At some point, it's highly probably Hammershøi encountered Whistler's work, though probably more as a kindred spirit than as an influence. Hammershøi's personality, style, and content were set in place early on and changed little during his lifetime. If the two artists never met, never knew each other, one would almost have to bet their mothers were on a first-name basis (above). Their mothers appear to have been sisters, or perhaps the two artists were brothers.

Interior, Vilhelm Hammershøi. Only the
tone and angles vary between the two.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, the
model has left the building.
Interior with Man Reading, 1898,
Vilhelm Hammershøi.
Though Whistler and Hammershøi were nothing alike personally, they could easily have painted from the same palette. Vilhelm was quiet, contemplative, and a desperately slow painter. The Danish artist seems to have seldom left the house, using only family members as models. His wife appears repeatedly in his work, often painted from the back as if to hide her identity. His portraits are just as quiet, just as restrained as their creator. His work is often said to be "silent." Hammershøi's domestic interiors are quiet often simply empty. At best, he seemed satisfied to merely rearrange the furniture once in a while as if it were part of a giant still-life, while varying the light according to the time of day he happened to be working. In some cases, one would almost get the feeling his models simply got bored with posing and quietly left the room while the artist painted on, rendering only the background as if hardly taking notice of their absence.

Nude Female Model, 1898,
Vilhelm Hammershøi.
Only rarely did Hammershøi depart significantly from silent darkly draped ladies and refined interiors. He did sometimes paint men (above, right) and sometimes painted nude women (probably not his wife). He was even known to, on rare occasions, venture outside where he brightened his palette with saturated yellows. How does such a reticent personality make a living as a painter? First of all, given his family background, Hammershøi may not have been forced to live off his commissions (which were, in any case, reasonably forthcoming). Beyond that, like Whistler, Hammershøi moved in artistic circles quite cognizant and receptive to, what we'd call today, "laid-back" content, style, and limited palette. Though certainly not abstract or expressionistic in any sense, there was a great deal of symbolism and genuine intellectual depth read into both the artist and his demeanor as well as his work. It was a persona few artists possessed or were willing to assume.

From Nakkehoved Strand, 1910, Vilhelm Hammershøi
--Minimalism before anyone even invented the term.


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