Important Art by Vilhelm Hammershøi
This portrait of Hammershøi's younger sister Anna was created when the artist was just 21 years old. It might seem a somewhat unremarkable work, depicting a young woman with a faintly distracted expression wearing a black dress and set against a neutral background. But in its very informality and lack of ceremonial significance - its truth to life - it reflected some of the paradigms of Naturalist and Realist portraiture popular in Europe and Russia at the time. At the same time, it also introduces the subtle allusiveness that would set Hammershøi's work apart from those genres, shifting the composition into a space of dreamlike intensity.
In compositional terms, the informal arrangement of the interior, and the capturing of the sitter in an apparently momentary posture, brings to mind the newly incidental quality that photography had suggested to painting - the work seems almost like a snapshot of a passing moment. Her hands are oddly arranged: one sits curled on her lap, the other placed lightly on the surface, on which she perches at an odd-angle away. Perhaps partly because of this quality of ephemerality, the young woman seems somewhat unknowable: her expression is inscrutable, as she looks off into the distance.
The painting caught people's attention at the time precisely because of its lack of detail: it did not give away any details of the sitter's class, occupation, or character. All the drama and intrigue of the painting seems to lie in questioning the internal thought process rather than reading the explicit cues of composition and style. In opening out the meaning of the work to the viewer, it established Hammershøi as a subtly avant-garde painter, who exposed news ways of suggesting meaning through representative art.
In this painting, Hammershøi depicts his older brother Svend reading in the artist's apartment on Åboulevarden in Copenhagen. The arrangement of the work is particularly striking, each object depicted contributing something to the mood of quiet calm, and suggesting the wholly incidental nature of the scene. The young man stands by the window, as if to catch the light, his chair pushed against the desk unused; an incomplete or discarded canvas appears to rest behind him, facing the wall, as if it were a metaphor for the untold secrets of the scene itself. In his focused state, the young man seems oblivious to what is going on around him, so that it appears that the painter's presence is entirely undetected by the sitter.
In this painting, Hammershøi establishes a key theme in his work of absorption: it seems that by making reading a central focus of his painting, Hammershøi was often inviting his viewers to enter the same place of quiet contemplative engagement of his sitters. By all accounts, this was a space that the artist himself readily inhabited; contemporaries all remarked on a polite but withdrawn, even odd manner, that seems to pervade the character of his work.
But Hammershøi was not a wholly withdrawn or unworldly figure; the misty, almost monochromatic quality of color in this work, and the subtle dappling of paint on the wall, not only render a secretive mood but also allude to contemporary Impressionists such as Monet and Whistler (the latter of whom Hammershøi revered). The arrangement of the canvas into non-symmetrical intersecting planes - so that most of the picture-space is taken up by the wall behind, with thinner strips representing window and floor to the right and below - is also characteristic of his work, and also subtly radical. It predicts the geometric abstraction of early-twentieth-century Cubist and Constructivist painters, suggesting an artist as preoccupied with the arrangement of lines on a canvas as with the representation of a space beyond it.
In this well-known work from 1901, Hammershøi's wife Ida sits with her back to the viewer in front of a piano. In the foreground is a table covered in a crisp white cloth, on which stand three plates, two empty and one full of butter. Though the woman is 'at' the piano, her lowered arms suggest that she is not playing it; she is more likely to be reading the score perched on the stand. Both the score and the paintings that hang above her head, however, are blurred and indistinct, as if, like the discarded canvas behind Svend, they are withholding their secrets from us. Likewise, any sensuous pleasure that might be implied by the meal-table is lacking because of the empty plates. Only the butter has been brought through, and stands as "a vivid marker", as the critic Bridget Alsdorf puts it, "of the sensual appetites otherwise hidden in Hammershøi's rooms."
The hidden face, obscured scores and canvases, and empty plates suggest a small but insoluble enigma at the heart of this painting: there is a fundamental mystery to lived experience, perhaps, that art can never hope to penetrate. In conveying this message, the work could be described as Symbolist in tone. At the same time, the arrangement suggests a number of deeper historical sources. Hammershøi's love of Vermeer is well-documented, and compositions such as The Music Lesson (1662-65) and The Art of Painting (1665-68) comprise a similar set of compositional ingredients. Like this work, moreover, Vermeer's domestic genre pieces are also artworks focused on the act of artistic creation.
For Alsdorf, this painting "epitomizes the fundamental tension of Hammershøi's interiors between the austere routine of everyday life, as he conceived it, and the sensuous pleasure and psychological absorption of art." This tension is both one that consumes the sitter and one that we as viewers are invited to partake in; just like brother Svend then, Ida secures our empathy even as she withholds her feelings and intentions.