Vilhelm Hammershøi Really Lived in Apartments Like This and Didn't See Any Issue

The Getty Museum has put on view Vilhelm Hammershøi's Interior with an Easel, Bredgade 25 (1912). It's a painting of an empty apartment: no figures, no story, no moral. There is barely furniture. The apartment looks too bare to be inhabited, but it was the Copenhagen home of Hammershøi and wife, Ida.

Hammershøi produced a hundred-some paintings of his severely tidy living spaces at Strandgade 30 and Bredgade 25. When there's a figure, it's Ida, often turned away from the viewer. The London Interior (1899) is at once empty and claustrophobic. A round table, holding nothing, fills the room and seems to block the doors.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior, 1899. National Gallery, London, on loan from the Tate Gallery
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Sunbeams: Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams, 1900. Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen
One of Hammershøi's best-known pictures, existing in several versions, shows beams of sunlight in a completely empty room.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, White Doors, Strandgade 30, 1899
Denmark's Ordrupgaard museum recently bought White Doors from an American private collection. It also has no furniture, just white doors leading into empty rooms.

The Getty announced its acquisition days after a viral Kat Hasty meme tweaking bros' underfurnished apartments. The flatscreen is the easel of content-consumers.

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Five Portraits, 1901-1902
How did the Hammershøis live this way? The short answer is that they didn't. Early in his career, Hammershøi had a separate studio and did salon-size paintings. He created the remarkable Five Portraits (1901-2) in the hope that Denmark's national gallery would acquire it. No such luck.
Vilhelm Hammershoi, Interior in Louis XVI Style, 1897
In 1897 Hammershøi painted a pink "Louis XVI" room in his apartment. The color is an experiment he didn't repeat. The following year Hammershøi moved to Strandgade 30 and had the walls painted muted gray. For the remainder of his career, Hammershøi would be the Matisse of greige.
Painting is a messy business, as is life. Photographs show that Hammershøi's home-studio was more cluttered than his paintings. He rotated furniture and tchotchkes, like a Rubik's cube, to achieve his sparse compositions. When the picture was done, he moved the furniture back and did a Danish death cleaning somewhere else.

Most of Hammershøi's mature paintings are small, as he created them and stacked them in his home. At 31 by 27-5/8 inches, the Getty work is one of the artist's larger interiors, suggesting that the artist saw it as a major statement.

As in Hollywood, under-recognized artists need a five-second pitch. Hammershøi is "often touted as 'the modern Vermeer'" says Timothy Potts in the Getty press release. The artist is also likened to James McNeill Whistler, Edward Hopper, and Giorgio Morandi.

Interior with an Easel, Bredgade 25 verges on abstraction, but it's not a painting of nothing. The easel declares it to be a meditation on painting itself. Unlike Vermeer (or Magritte), Hammershøi doesn't show what's on the easel. The Interior bears comparison to the early Rembrandt in Boston showing a looming picture on an easel, turned away from the viewer.
Rembrandt, Artist in His Studio, c. 1629. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Rene Magritte, The Human Condition, 1933. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
William Leavitt, Painted Image, 1972. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Easel and Punch Bowl, 1907
Hammershøi did four paintings showing an easel. The earliest, from 1907, depicts a tall, empty easel in the Strandgade 30 apartment. The other three show the Bredgade 25 home and a lighter tripod easel.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Landscape, From Lejre, 1905, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
It's probably the easel that Hammershøi used on summer trips to the Danish countryside. There he produced equally minimalistic landscapes.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with the Artist's Easel, 1910. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The three Bredgade 25 easel paintings share nearly the same perspective as the Getty's, though at different times of day. They must have been informed by Monet's serial paintings. Of the three, the Getty's painting is the most reductive. It eliminates a chair behind the easel and a porcelain bowl on the table in the far room. It is also the most luminous, the only one with the striking pattern of sunlight on the floor and wall. The brushwork is light and textural, leaving flecks of ground visible.

Hammershøi worked from photographs to achieve a sense of mundane reality. This may strengthen the parallel to Vermeer, particularly if you buy the theory that Vermeer used a camera obscura. Many of Hammershøi's contemporaries were exploring photography, among them Degas, Fernand Khnopff, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins. But Hammershøi seems to have used photography the most consistently and audaciously. He made paintings that could not have existed before photography; paintings trading on the uncanniness of photochemical empiricism.

Interior with an Easel, Bredgade 25 is dated 1912, after breakthrough abstractions of name-brand moderns (including fellow Scandinavian Hilma af Klint). It is arguably the Getty's most modern painting, unless you count Ed Ruscha's Picture Without Words, a 1997 commission for the Getty's Harold M. Williams Auditorium. Come to think of it, the Ruscha could be called Hammershøi-esque.
Ed Ruscha, Picture Without Words, 1997
Interior With an Easel is being shown on the same wall with Fernand Khnopff's child portrait of Jeanne Kéfer. Q. How did the Hammershøis keep their apartment so tidy with kids? A. They didn't have kids. For not a few artists in today's real estate market, that's the trade-off.
Fernand Khnopff, Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer, 1885


James Zicrov said…
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