Considering the popular dramatic narrative, it’s understandable if we are inclined to think that painters who matured in the second half of the nineteenth century were compelled to choose between two alternatives, academicism and impressionism. The truth was more complex; before mass market color publications and the internet, artists had access to Old Master paintings via museum collections and were privy to a broader array of influences than they received in ateliers. Among those influences, the rediscovery of Vermeer in the 1860s was seminal. Reminiscing years later about his youth, Degas noted “When we were beginning, Fantin, Whistler, and I, we were on the same path, the road from Holland.”
The road from Holland was marked by a sobriety of tone in every sense of the word, and no major painter of fin-de-siècle Europe stayed closer to that path than did the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, a selection of whose works is installed at Scandinavia House on Park Avenue. Though there are several large paintings in the show, Hammershøi was certainly an intimist, an artist whose moody interiors evoke a bleached-out Vermeer, by way of Bergman. He studied with P. S. Kroyer, an extrovert whose paintings are filled with color, but Hammershøi’s interests lay elsewhere. “I have a pupil who paints most oddly,” Kroyer confided. “I do not understand him, but believe he is going to be important and do not try to influence him.”
Even in his most self-conscious compositions, like the symmetrical The Buildings of the Asiatic Company, Seen from St. Annæ Street, Copenhagen, we know we’re experiencing a dryly personal view of the artist’s surroundings. Kasper Monrad notes in the show’s catalogue that although Copenhagen was lively with pedestrian traffic, Hammershøi was more interested in empty space than human presence. The ghostly intimations of ship’s masts that the artist left at the center of The Buildings of the Asiatic Company remain appropriately mysterious: did he intend to paint a fog that wiped out all semblance of activity in the nearby harbor, or was the painting just left unfinished? Ventures into greener pastures, as with Near Fortunen, Jægersborg Deer Park, North of Copenhagen, produced elegiac dreamscapes. Hammershøi liked his scenery backlit, trees swathed in mist, their branches twisted against a penumbra of soft light.
In his early years Hammershøi could be an intense portraitist, as is evident from several highly sensitive and characteristically dolorous paintings of his wife and acquaintances. A youthful self-portrait is thickly painted, as if the clotted atmosphere the artist favored had got inside the pigment itself. A canvas of the same year, Portrait of Ida Ilsted, Later the Artist’s Wife, is handled with lovely subtlety. One wonders whether Ida was as good a temperamental match for her husband as his paintings of her suggest, or whether we’re witnessing the inexorable projection of Hammershøi’s personality. At any event, Ida eventually became the most recognizable chess piece in her husband’s interiors.
Hammershøi’s most famous works are his interiors, whose figures, stationed like so much organic furniture, are often seen from behind. With no clear anecdotal purpose and no discernable features, the abstraction of Woman Seen from the Back must have been exasperating to a public expecting narrative; it’s little surprise to learn that Hammershøi moved briefly to London in hopes of meeting Whistler, an artist with a shared aversion to storytelling and love of visual ambiguity. Woman Seen from the Back has its understated pleasures, especially in the poetry of edges at the figure’s shoulders and arms and the welcome warm tone of the arcing chair in the foreground (At last, I nearly shouted with relief, a change in color temperature!). But such rewards, as well as the tactile surfaces of some of the paintings, are largely suppressed. Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor is a marvelous study in variations of gray, but it, and the exhibition in general, left me uncertain as to whether Hammershøi’s paintings deliver moments of transcendence or merely chronicle an unremittingly dour interior life. The artist wore his rigors on his sleeve, and without recourse to an occasional flourish of color or brushstroke, he challenges us to accept a world predicated on abstinence. Painters will find beautiful passages, fine drawing and a refined sensibility, and even casual viewers will be moved by the pictures’ quietude. But one recalls Andrew Wyeth’s dismissive reference to impressionist painting as “visual cocktail,” a sentiment Hammershøi would have appreciated. When it came to color and its expressive connotations he was one of art history’s great teetotalers.
Why do I use few and muted colors? I’m sure I don’t know. It’s quite impossible for me to say anything on the subject. It’s natural for me, but why, I couldn’t say. But it has in any case been like that from the first time I exhibited. It can perhaps best be called neutral and few colors. I absolutely think that a picture has the best effect in strictly coloristic regards the fewer colors there are in it.
No painter has ever better described the sum of their career than did Hammershøi in that last sentence. He found the perfect palette to suit a narrow emotional range, and made the most of his limitations.
Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershøi continues at the Scandinavia House through February 27, 2016.