Vilhelm Hammershøi, Amalienborg Palace Square, Copenhagen, 1896, Courtesy of the National Gallery of Denmark
Artists betray their amateurishness with promiscuous use of color more than any other lapse of taste. The reasoning goes: I love color, I shall use all available in great intensities. In practice it ends in disaster. One might as well express one’s love of sex by trying to have it with everybody.
In contrast, good colorists understand how to employ neutrals. Black mixed with white and not much else sometimes reads as blue in a Rubens. The most important hue on Matisse’s palette was gray. Morandi could make a painting with tones of mud, masking tape, and dryer lint and somehow put together a still life that holds up well next to a Renoir. Writing for The New York Times in 2001, Michael Francis Gibson called Morandi’s works “a curious litmus test.” He hinted that to fail to appreciate their visual humility was to fail at seeing art in general. Now that more people know and revere Morandi than used to, we could use a confirmation challenge. The works of the even-less-known Vilhelm Hammershøi will do. A choice exhibition thereof at New York’s Scandinavia House, consisting of pieces from the collection of The National Gallery of Denmark, provides it.
Esteem for the artist has largely been confined to Scandinavia despite his early works bemusing fellow Copenhageners. The catalogue recounts that his teacher Peder Severin Krøyer scolded young Hammershøi for painting figures as if they were “fat lit by the moon.” Nevertheless Krøyer had the wisdom to stay out of his way. “I have a pupil who paints most oddly,” he recorded. “I do not understand him, but believe he is going to be important and do not try to influence him.”
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Woman Seen from the Back, 1888, Courtesy of the National Gallery of Denmark
Thus unencumbered, Hammershøi began painting unqualified masterpieces while still in his mid-twenties. It’s not excessive to say that Woman Seen from the Back (1888) recalls Vermeer’s treatment of women in the midst of domesticity. But it’s Vermeer with Scandinavian austerity measures. The subject’s back faces the viewer and the table is bereft of clues that would set the scene. Is she reading a note? It’s none of our business. Her posture, matronly proportions, black dress, and white apron convey her whole personality. The gradation of light on the unadorned taupe wall speaks of the reserved tenor of life in this house. The picture necessitated four tubes of oils. As much as its reductive modernism resembles Whistler’s, the artist appears to have arrived at it mostly on his own.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior with the Artist's Easel, 1910, Courtesy of the National Gallery of Denmark
Reduction marked his whole oeuvre. Hammershøi hit upon an artistic idea that only seems obvious in retrospect—to shoo all the people and housepets out of the Dutch interior genre and send half the furnishings with them. He deservedly became known for his paintings of gently lit, nigh-empty rooms, most of which hailed from around his house. “Painting Tranquility” has the premiere example, Interior with the Artist’s Easel (1910). Like the aforementioned figure, the back of the painting on the easel faces the viewer. Nothing can be known of its surface, but the light gracing the wall behind it hints at its luminosity. Hammershøi renders an open door using two gray stripes laid down with perfect economy. Through the doorway a white bowl on a sideboard appears, as if an angel. Just as Morandi could infuse dusty bottles with Himalayan grandeur, Hammershøi could make a dining room feel like the inside of a cathedral.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Near Fortunen, Jægersborg Deer Park, North of Copenhagen, 1901, Courtesy of the National Gallery of Denmark
This approach, to find his subjects nearby and denude them of extraneities, served him equally well in the landscape. The title of Near Fortunen, Jægersborg Deer Park, North of Copenhagen (1901) indicates a typical choice. These are hardly deep woods. But the weakening sunlight streaming through the copse lends them a different kind of depth. The little triangle of grass behind reads as if it were the size of an ocean. His distinctive cityscapes, unpopulated and sunk into weather as gray as cement, establish an atmosphere of evocative urban bleakness that art didn’t see again until Edward Hopper. This exhibition also includes The Buildings of the Asiatic Company, seen from St. Annæ Street, Copenhagen (1902), in which the central figure is a subtly differentiated bank of fog in which one can barely make out the masts of ships. The symmetrical architecture containing it is painted with unstinting care, suggesting that the apparent blank warrants the same scrutiny, which of course it does.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, The Buildings of the Asiatic Company, seen from St. Annæ Street, Copenhagen, 1902, Courtesy of the National Gallery of Denmark
Scandinavia House could continue for decades bringing worthy Nordic early modernists to renewed attention in solo exhibitions and not run out of excellent material: Harald Slott-Møller, Prince Eugen, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Laurits Andersen Ring, Hammershøi’s old teacher Krøyer and his wife Marie Triepcke, Enjar Nielsen, on and on. But mounting the first Hammershøi exhibition in New York in fifteen years is a superlative way to establish that project. François Jullien, elucidating a treatise by eighteenth-century painter Fang Xun, writes that “only when both technique and originality are equally ‘forgotten,’ when their mutual opposition is transcended, can the ‘bland and natural’ (pingdan tianran) emerge.” Hammershøi’s exquisite reticence is both Danish and cosmic.
"Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershøi," opened at Scandinavia House, New York on October 17, 2015 and remains on view through February 27, 2016.