Ever since seeing Michael Palin’s documentary Michael Palin and the Mystery of Hammershoi (which I reviewed here), I’ve become an unofficial “Friend of Hammershoi,” the unofficial organization Palin proposes in his documentary to help raise the profile of Vilhelm Hammershoi in the art world. Born May 15, 1864, Hammershoi’s life story is as elusive as the subject matter of his paintings. Although he did paint landscapes in the open air, Hammershoi focused on Vermeer-inspired scenes such as Interior with a Girl at the Clavier (above, from 1901), which recalls Vermeer’s The Music Lesson and many other scenes of young women at keyboards. Whereas we can imagine Vermeer’s young lady turning around or turning to face her teacher, it’s hard to imagine Hammershoi’s keyboardist acknowledging our presence, so self-absorbed in the music she seems to be. Hammershoi’s paintings speak of loneliness, even when people are present—often even more so when people are there.
Hammershoi’s White Doors (aka, Open Doors; above, from 1905) reminds me of Edward Hopper’s famous remark that all he wanted to do was paint light falling on a wall. Hammershoi takes great pleasure in painting the play of light on doors and walls as they reveal more walls and doors. Andrew Wyeth’s approach to painting doors often suggested the presence of his friends, particularly Christina and Alvaro Olson in Alvaro and Christina. Wyeth paints those doors to symbolize his now-dead friends. Hammershoi, however, paints the doors with no feeling of human presence. The sense of absence, of crushing loneliness is palpable. You can almost hear the distant echo of solitary footsteps treading the wooden floors. From the little that is known of Hammershoi, it’s easy to assume that he had a crushing sense of shyness that made contact with others nearly impossible.
Hammershoi painted the interior of his Copenhagen apartment at Strandgarde 30 over sixty times, including Interior, Strandgarde 30 (above, from 1903-1904), which depicts his wife, Ida, holding a serving plate and looking away, as always. (Amazingly, nudes of Ida by Hammershoi exist, showing that he had overcome his shyness at least in one case.) As “shadowy” as the subject matter is in Hammershoi’s works, they are almost always flooded with light. That light reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s amazing short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," in which an old waiter keeps his café clean, brightly lit, and open well into the night for those lonely ones who “do not want to go to bed,” but rather “need a light for the night.” Like Hemmingway, Hammershoi seeks a clean, ordered, well-lit place to fend off the loneliness that filth, disorder, and darkness would only exacerbate. Hammershoi’s paintings, the landscapes excluded, may seem claustrophobic even when all the doors are open, but they served as cocoons in which he could grow, feel safe, and create.