Hammershøi’s apartment in Copenhagen inspired many of his finest paintings. He depicted this room, with its view onto a windowed loggia, in early morning, at noon, and at night. It became his most iconic image. The unadorned interior seen here, glowing deep mauve in the moonlight, encapsulates the artist’s reputation as the painter of "silence and light." Muted and mysterious, this composition amplifies a sensibility developed in the work of fellow Northern Symbolists, including the Belgian Xavier Mellery and the Norwegian Edvard Munch.
The son of a prosperous merchant, Hammershøi trained in Copenhagen, making his debut at the Royal Academy’s Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition in 1885. He traveled and exhibited widely, his austerely constructed interior views earning him fame as the “Poet of Light – of Quietude – of the Home” (quoted in Felix Krämer et al., Hammershøi, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2008, p. 18). The German Expressionist painter Emil Nolde visited him in his Copenhagen apartment in 1900 and commented upon the tranquility of his life, as did the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who visited him in 1904, intending to write an essay about his paintings (Vad 1992, pp. 271–78, 404–6). Although Hammershøi’s reputation declined after World War I, from the 1950s there has been a resurgence of interest in his work, the formal purity and simplicity of which can now be seen to herald a new conception of painting.
The Metropolitan’s picture shows a parlor in the apartment that Hammershøi shared with his wife Ida at Strandgade 30 in the historic inner city of Copenhagen. From 1898 until 1908, this apartment served as Hammershøi’s studio. Its rooms inspired the development of his defining subject matter: the interaction of architecture and light (Vad 1992, pp. 178–211).
Hammershøi’s second-floor apartment was arranged in a “u” shape around a central courtyard with light entering from different directions. The parlor was situated near the back of the building along one side of the “u” (see Additional Images, fig. 1); the view through the glass panes is not of the outside world, but of a windowed loggia, reached by the door at right and facing the courtyard. Between 1900 and 1909 Hammershøi painted more than ten versions of this vista at different times of day. Some show a figure, generally Ida, to the left of the window (one such example is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Others, like the present work, depict an empty interior, emphasizing the geometric patterns of the window and door and the shifting effects of light. A closely related composition showing the room in morning sunshine dates from 1900 (Ordrupgaard, Charlottenlund); another, dating from 1906, shows the room at noon (Davids Samling, Copenhagen). The Metropolitan’s picture is not signed or dated, and its moment of execution is uncertain. The first attempts to date the picture, made when it surfaced on the art market in the mid-1980s, situated it around 1900–1905; more recent scholars tentatively assign it to 1906 (Vad 1988; Vad 1992; Meyer-Abich 1995).
Hammershøi produced a number of nocturnes in the first two decades of his career (see MMA 2012.377), but the Metropolitan’s picture appears unusual in that it depicts moonbeams rather than artificial light. Hammershøi conveyed the quality of nighttime vision by painting the interior a deep lavender hue; the walls and ceilings of the apartment were actually gray, and the doors, window frames, and moldings were white, but in the artist’s work they take on a range of tints, from green to gray-blue and brown. Although rich in tone, the palette of this picture is characteristic in its restraint. Also typical is the spartan state of the interior, although the complete elimination of furnishings in this painting and its counterparts in Denmark is notable.
[Alison Hokanson 2015]
Anders Fonnesbech, Copenhagen (until d. 1939; his estate sale, Winkel & Magnussen, Copenhagen, December 6–8, 1939, no. 43, for DKK 1,110 to Axelsen); [H. Axelsen, Copenhagen, from 1939]; sale, Sotheby's, London, November 28, 1984, no. 318, for £18,000; [Bury Street Gallery, London, until 1986; sold to private collection, London]; private collection, London (1986–2009; sale, Christie's, London, September 10, 2009, no. 140, for £187,250 to private collection); private collection (from 2009; sold to Sayn-Wittgenstein); [Sayn-Wittgenstein Fine Art, New York, until 2012; sold to MMA]
London. Bury Street Gallery. "Danish Paintings 1880–1920," March 4–April 20, 1986, no. 7 (as "Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunlight," dated 1900–1905).
Danish Paintings 1880–1920. Exh. cat., Bury Street Gallery. London, 1986, unpaginated, no. 7, ill.
Poul Vad. Hammershøi, Voerk og liv. [Copenhagen], 1988, pp. 192, 456, ill. p. 391 [English ed., "Vilhelm Hammershøi and Danish Art at the Turn of the Century," New Haven, 1992, pp. 192, 456, pl. 254], calls it "Interiør, Strandgade 30," does not date the painting, but lists it amongst works made in 1906.
Susanne Meyer-Abich. "Vilhelm Hammershøi: Das Malerische Werk." PhD diss., Ruhr-Universität Bochum, 1995, p. 191, no. 279, tentatively dates it 1906; calls it a variant of "Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunlight" (1900; Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen).
Felix Krämer. "The Rediscovery of Vilhelm Hammershøi: Two Recent Acquisitions in New York and Frankfurt." Burlington Magazine 155 (February 2013), pp. 96–97, fig. 31 (color).
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 519, no. 424, ill. pp. 460, 519 (color).
Artist: Vilhelm Hammershøi (Danish, Copenhagen 1864–1916 Copenhagen)Date: 1896 or afterMedium: Grapite, incised for transfer; verso: made black with graphite, chalk or charcoalAccession: 2016.682On view in:Not on view