I went to Copenhagen, Denmark to visit some museums with my peers when I was a student in Sweden and left with an obsession for a lot of Scandinavian painters. A couple of paintings of still, silent interiors remain indelible. They were all by the same artist a Danish painter called Vilhelm Hammershoi.  He is best known for his genre-painting of quiet, poetic interiors, in which light and time seem to stand still.

Hammershoi was born in 1864 in Copenhagen, Denmark; son of a well to do merchant. He studied drawing from the age of eight before pursuing an education in arts at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. He made a debut in the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition in 1885, one of the most important open submission exhibitions in northern Europe. After graduating, he tried to get into the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition but was rejected several times.

Ida reading a letter, oil on canvas, 1899

Ida reading a letter, oil on canvas, 1899

During the 19th century, an increasing number of artists began to question the legitimacy of these exhibitions and what subjects and styles were acceptable. They started defying academic conventions by painting the mundane aspects of ordinary lives in genre paintings.

Hammershoi later challenged the system in his own way by painting interior scenes of his home’s off-white walls, light wood and a few pieces of furniture usually featuring his wife Ida. He constantly rearranged the furniture to create new compositions in an attempt to find a balance between space and surfaces. The subtle shades of grey evoke mystical spaces where melancholy, simplicity, and solitude prevail.

 

 

It seems as if he was simply interested in representing beauty in the ordinary, rather than making complex statements about society. He also painted a lot of landscapes, from outdoor architecture to the countryside, but these are considered of less significance. There has been a resurgence of his work in exhibits all over Europe, and he is now regarded as one of the best genre painters from Scandinavia.

Echoes of Dutch Realist Jan Vermeer and American painter James McNeil Whistler can be seen in Hammershoi’s work varying from a choice of subjects, composition to brushwork but in a much more minimalistic style.

 

Vilhelm Hammershoi’s Palette

Vilhelm Hammershoi’s Palette

 

I was fortunate enough to experience his paintings in person when I visited the Hirschsprung Collection and Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Denmark. From the moment I set sight on his painting, I lost myself as if nothing existed around me, other than an overwhelming sense of peace and quiet.

Thinking of his paintings also reminds me of a song titled Grey Room by Damien Rice. I hope you get to experience a similar serenity when you come across one his paintings.

Ayuesh Agarwal