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Vilhelm Hammershøi

Danish Painter

Vilhelm Hammershøi Photo
Movement: Symbolism

Born: May 15, 1864 - Copenhagen, Denmark

Died: February 13, 1916 - Copenhagen, Denmark

"I have always thought there was such beauty about a room even though there weren't any people in it, perhaps precisely when there weren't any."

Summary of Vilhelm Hammershøi

In the quiet interiors, bare exteriors, and sparse landscapes of Vilhelm Hammershøi an impenetrable riddle is concealed. He is best known for his paintings of domestic spaces, scantly furnished rooms with white walls and plain floors: horizontal and vertical planes that often meet at irregular points on the canvas. Figures sit or stand, turned away or half-concealed, perhaps engrossed in an activity such as reading which draws their attention away from us. Like the sitter to the book, our perception is somehow irresistibly drawn to these spaces, in which almost nothing is happening, but which suggest something profound and inexpressible about the nature of life and art. The bare facades, skies, streets and tree-lines of his outdoor scenes have the same effect. The most immediate point of reference for Hammershøi's work is Symbolism, and we can also trace a thread of affinity back through the Naturalist and Realist traditions of Northern Europe to the Dutch Golden Age. But in effect, Hammershøi's work stands, like one of his models, in an imaginative space of its own creation.

Key Ideas

Hammershøi was amongst the most understated of late-nineteenth-century avant-garde artists, avoiding both the ostentatious formal transgression of French Post-Impressionist groupings and the decadent exoticism of his Symbolist contemporaries. Instead, he allowed the strangeness of his compositional arrangements - often based around asymmetrical intersections of floor and wall - and the daring minimalism of his subject-matter, to impress themselves with a quiet intensity, drawing the viewer away from everyday perception with a gradual but ineluctable force.
Hammershøi became famous as a painter of domestic spaces, but he was, more exactly, a painter of architecture and design, both interior and exterior. His indoor scenes are populated with distracted and concentrated figures, while his cityscapes are bereft of human inhabitants altogether, the streets and buildings taking on a power and life of their own. Such was the clarity and uniqueness of his vision for these spaces - beautiful, quiet, mysterious - that his influence has been felt in architecture and cinematography as much as in modern painting.
Though Hammershøi might be described as a Symbolist, he was an atypical one. Whereas his contemporary Fernand Khnopff - perhaps Hammershøi's most obvious kindred spirit in that wider movement - often turned to explicitly uncanny or supernatural motifs to indicate the world of dream and myth lying behind the everyday, none of Hammershøi's symbols lie outside the realm of the imaginable. The reading figure; the canvas turned to the wall; the door ajar, leading into an empty room: his symbolic lexicon was composed of familiar objects and postures, making their capacity to express the deep, unyielding enigmas of life all the more extraordinary.
Vilhelm Hammershøi Photo

Vilhelm Hammershøi was born on the 15th of May, 1864 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The son of a well-off merchant, he was brought up with his sister and two brothers in a large house in the Old Quarter of Copenhagen, a city where he would remain for the rest of his life. Hammershøi showed artistic talent from an early age and was encouraged by his mother to begin training at the age of eight; his older brother Svend was also a painter. Vilhelm trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art between 1879 and 1884, taking lessons from the painter Niels Christian Kierkegaard, cousin of the famous philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Hammershøi also worked with the Realist portraitist Frederik Vermehren, and thus was exposed from a young age to the great traditions of Danish painting. Vermehren himself had a place in that tradition, having been associated with the so-called Danish Golden Age of the early nineteenth century, when artists such as Christian Købke and Wilhelm Bendz depicted Romantic landscapes and interior spaces suffused with bright, clear light.

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