Vilhelm Hammershoi

Vilhelm Hammershoi (15 May 1864 - 13 February 1916) was a painter born in Copenhagen, Denmark. He worked mainly in his native city painting primarily portraits, architecture, landscapes, and interior scenes. He is most famous for the latter, which are painted in a muted palette.

Hammershoi was the son of a shopkeeper and had drawing lessons from the age of eight due to his artistic talent. He attended the Kongelige Akademi for de Skonne Kunster, Copenhagen, under Frederik Vermehren, between 1879 and 1884. He also studied under Frederik Rohde, Vilhelm Kyhn and Peder Severin Kroyer and enjoyed early success - particularly on an international level. In 1891 he married a colleague's sister, Ida Ilsted and they lived together in Copenhagen until his death in 1916. Ida is the figure to be seen in his interiors and portrait paintings- often depicted from behind.

Even though his style and technique in the middle of the 1880s did not differ greatly from those of the typical painters of the decade, his psychological conception is more characteristic of the 1890s and was not always understood by his contemporaries. In fact, a portrait of his sister in 1885 (Den Hirchsprungske Samfng, Copenhagen) was rejected for the Neuhausen Prize; the first step was then taken towards the creation of the Free Exhibition, of which Hammershoi was a founding member. His palette was already a harmonious tonality of grey from soft black, of which he was a true master, to white, accentuated by warmer colours. His interiors from the 1880s show that he had mastered the dramatic leap from intense darkness to full light.


Hammershoi travelled to the Netherlands and Belgium in 1887. In 1889 he exhibited four pictures at the Paris World Fair and had his first opportunity to see works by Whistler. From September 1891 to March 1892 he lived in Paris, where he was frequently in the company of Willumsen. He also met Th. Duret, who later visited him in Copenhagen. From October to December 1893 he was in northern Italy. In June 1897 he went to Stockholm; in October the same year, he went by way of the Netherlands to London, where he remained until May 1898. He may have seen the major exhibition which opened there on May 16 (The Skating Rink, Knightsbridge), where, in addition to works by Monet, Manet, Bonnard, Vuillard, and German artists, there were nine oil paintings by Whistler.

From October 1902 to February 1903 he was again in Italy, and in September 1904 in London. Hammershoi's trips, especially those to London, are important for his artistic development. Part of his time in London was spent in painting street scenes around the British Museum, and part, it is said, in seeking out Whistler. In Paris the portrait of his future wife Ida Ilsted (1890) was admired by Th. Duret and Puvis de Chavannes, and Renoir was said to have been interested in some of his early portraits, among them the one of his sister which had been rejected earlier.


Young man readingLike other Danish painters at the time, Hammershoi had a great deal in common with the Golden Age painters and with Eckersberg's school, both because of his training and out of personal preference.

Hammershoi's subjects included portraits, nudes, landscapes, architecture, and interiors. The last category, with their silent, female figures, seen from the back, show the influence of Vermeer. Perhaps more interesting, however, are those interiors without figures. They, like his austere architectural paintings, are like architecture itself, Pure Art. The landscapes, too, are formally related to his architectural views because through their simplification they tell of space and structure. Even in his portraits, Hammershoi expresses an architectural feeling for structure, as in the portrait of the architect and craftsman Thorvald Bindesboll.

After his death in 1916 his work gradually sank into oblivion. Hammershoi's dispassionately purist style was too much at odds with the disquieting experiments of the post-war avant-garde movement. Its stridency made Hammershoi's enigmatically sad art seem strangely outdated. The rediscovery and reassessment of Symbolism in recent years paved the way for Hammershoi's melancholic pictorial view of the world to regain its place in the consciousness of the public. Hammershoi is now not only one of the most well-known artists in Scandinavia, but he has also regained popularity in Paris and New York thanks to comprehensive retrospectives afforded him by the Musee d'Orsay and the Guggenheim Museum.