The room is quiet. We stand on the fringes, in the shadows, divided from the softly luminous space that’s momentarily brought into the light. Within grasp of this white halo hangs a mirror that does not reflect an image, a narrow table carrying an empty bowl and two glass bottles, and a woman sitting behind the table with her body mostly turned away from us. It’s hard to tell whether she senses our presence and ignores it, or if she’s so absorbed in thought that she doesn’t take notice. We are in the Copenhagen home of the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, at Strandgade 30, where, as his wife Ida Ilsted wrote in a letter, he “always wanted to live” and moved to in 1898. Titled “Interior with Woman Sitting at a Table” (1910), the painting depicts Ilsted, whom Hammershøi painted in this apartment many times. A selection of those works is currently on view in Painting Tranquility at Scandinavia House, along with some of the artist’s portraits and landscapes, all of them on loan from SMK, the National Gallery of Denmark.
Ilsted and Hammershøi never had children, and one gets the impression from his sparse, painted interiors of bare pale walls and hardwood floors that the two of them roamed a seemingly vacant home. “He paints in a large gray room so deep that its inner recesses, the winter sunshine notwithstanding, remain in subdued twilight. And the only sound is a robin’s fluttering about on the old mahogany furniture,” a local journalist wrote in 1907. The minimal and silent aesthetic of Hammershøi’s interiors did not fit with the fashions of the time; bourgeois homes were cluttered with couches, curtains, and pictures on walls, and Danish art portraying domestic scenes reflected this lavish lifestyle.
Before Ilsted and Hammershøi married in 1891, he mainly painted his mother and sister. A very private person who rarely spoke of his art, he only liked to paint friends and turned away commissions. “I would rather know them very well in order to paint them,” he said of his subjects. Though his images are often mute — the nape of a neck, a closed door, the back of a head, an easel facing away, an elbow — they are not cold, but rather tender and intimate; through his paintings we get the sense that whatever passed through his home was protected, wordlessly cherished.
“Painting collects the world and brings it home,” John Berger writes. “And it can do this because its images are static and changeless.” A painting, in delivering some aspect of lived experience, becomes like an object in our homes: in its stillness, we feel as though it is ours to keep. As someone who grew up changing homes every three years or so, I’m especially drawn to paintings of domestic interiors; images like Hammershøi’s make the memory of home present and constant.
I like to imagine what it would be like to be a guest in painted homes. In playing this game, I often discover much about the host (or painter) and the company she or he keeps, and seeks, in both people and things. Hammershøi has proven to be curious. The homeyness of a house often comes from human presence. We fill our spaces with mementos, books, colorful pillowcases, and plants until they look less like architecture and more like ourselves. Paintings of the home, from the Dutch Golden Age to Modernism, embody this, reflecting cultural values and using the space to define the inhabitant’s person as well as status. Hammershøi’s depictions of still women under subdued light do bear affinities with those by 17th-century Dutch painters — he admired them greatly, and his home actually dates to that time. But instead of focusing our attention on a letter being read, milk being poured, or music being played, Hammershøi draws us into the space, the architecture, the lines of his apartment, and how the figures and objects configure within it. The story of each picture is ambiguous, and for this reason his contemporaries considered him eccentric — Karl Madsen, the director of SMK, called Hammershøi “the weirdest soul ever to grace Danish painting.”
Hammershøi’s apartment bridged two buildings with a large gallery, imparting the sense of a continuous hall of rooms with no exit, leading to more windows and more doors. In 19th-century Danish and European art, the window was a popular theme, but whereas most painters were interested in looking out, Hammershøi, as in “Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor” (1901), observes the way the sun filters in and scatters through the glass. Even when we are outside — the exhibition includes paintings of a monument in Copenhagen, a church, and the exterior view of Strandgade 30 — the streets are deserted, as though everyone were contained to the home. Instead, the streets are inhabited by a screen of fog — a phenomenon that dazzled Hammershøi, especially during his stay in London, and that casts his gray-toned color scheme (artist Joakim Skovgaard once noted, after a visit to Hammershøi’s studio and home, “it looked as if four oyster shells lay on [his] palette”) in a new light.
As my eye travels along the door jambs, fluted moldings, and frames of Hammershøi’s paintings — as I observe the way the hem of a skirt falls on the floor like the window’s shadow, how an oven hides behind a door, how a chair turns at a right angle — I see the empty home that we all occupy and attempt to make our own. But whereas most of the time we strive to cover or erase a house’s naked details, Hammershøi defines his home through its ever-present spaces.
Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershøi from SMK — The National Gallery of Denmark continues at Scandinavia House (58 Park Ave, Murray Hill, Manhattan) through February 27, 2016.