Not So Tranquil Rooms

Portrait of the Artist's Wife Ida from 1890 by Vilhelm Hammershøi

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife Ida from 1890 by Vilhelm Hammershøi

Until March 23rd, Scandinavia House  is presenting “Paininting Tranquility,” featuring about two dozen works by Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) considered to be one of the greatest Danish artists of he late 19th century.

Consisting of about two dozen works from the National Gallery of Denmark,   you’ll find portraits, cityscapes, landscapes, but mostly rooms, with and without people, primarily painted between 1888 and 1907. 

In all these paintings, Hammershøi works with a fairly limited palette of browns and grays, with the occasional yellow or green stopping by to say “hello.”  His works possess some of the austerity you’ll find in works by Edward Hopper or Winslow Homer, but overlain with distance and puzzlement, even melancholy. There are no people in his city- or land-scapes; the women in his interiors are usually alone, with their backs to us

In his portraits, Hammershøi eschewed details, giving them more a psychological than representational aspect.  You see this very strikingly in the portraits of his wife, Ida;  there are two from 1890; her attire and demeanor are the same;  yet, when she was his fiancée, she was depicted in broad lines, her hat and costume cited; yet, after their marriage, her portrait is almost full-length; her face smoother and her eyes clearer; the feather in her hat is more defined, and you can see the buttons on her jacket. In a  small portrait from 1894 we see her, head uncovered, gazing downward, and wearing a very severe dress; yet, there’s a certain tenderness conveyed here, as also in the large scale portrait from 1907 (after she had recovered from a life-threatening illness) where Ida is sitting, idly stirring a cup of tea and looking off, away from the viewer, past the frame.

In the next room you’ll find “Evening in a Drawing Room” showing Ida knitting, while her mother-in-law sits nearby, reading the paper, each engrossed in her own work, as if they were passengers in the same rail car. This is the only painting that had more than one person, but that feeling of isolation which infuses his interiors, carries over here, too.

Paintings of rooms dominate this exhibit;  even though Hammershøi was known as “the painter of tranquil rooms” and these interiors are plain you somehow feel a bit off balance.  I found myself repeatedly wondering what was going on; many of the paintings would have a lone woman who was not facing the painter, and I wanted to know what she was doing; whether she was smiling or frowning… there are windows and doors that lead to somewhere else, and I kept on wishing I could go through the paintings and see what lay beyond.

From Christianhavn's Cove, by Vilhelm Hammershøi

From Christianhavn’s Cove, by Vilhelm Hammershøi

That feeling carried though his painting of three ships”From Christianahavn’s Canal;” tied up in the dock, with their sails indicated through rough lines in an almost Cubist fashion, they are facing seaward; but there seems to be fog over the water, not letting you see what you’re sure is there..   I found the same to be true of “Buildings of the Asiatic Company” from 1902 – a baroque style building connected to its warehouse by a one story structure, looking over the harbor, which you can’t see, because of fog… but if you look closely, you’ll see the outline of a ship in between the buildings.

I would say in general that what you don’t see in Hammershøi’s pictures shapes your perception as much as what he does make visible.

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