Hammershøi’s independence and ambition were evident by the time he completed his training at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen in 1884. Eager to broaden his horizons, he sought out progressive artistic communities in Denmark and traveled and exhibited widely in Europe. Early in his career, he was especially impressed by the luminous compositions of Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675; see, for example, The Met 89.15.21
) and the muted palette and soft brushwork of James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903; see, for example, The Met 13.20
). These inspirations shaped the development in the 1890s of Hammershøi’s trademark subject: interior scenes whose formal purity and simplicity heralded a new conception of painting centered on the interaction of line, light, and geometric form. Hammershøi’s austere, yet hauntingly lyrical, interiors soon earned him international fame as the "Poet of Light—of Quietude—of the Home." At the turn of the century, his admirers included such artistic trailblazers as the Expressionist painter Emil Nolde, the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who traveled to Copenhagen just to meet him.The Painting:
In 1911, Hammershøi undertook a group of self-portraits that encapsulate his reputation as a painter of serene, light-filled interiors. They were painted at Spurveskjul (Sparrow’s Hideaway), a villa in the present-day town of Virum north of Copenhagen, which the artist and his wife Ida had rented for the summer. The country home, designed and built in 1804–5 by the Danish Neoclassical painter Nicolai Abildgaard (1743–1809), is now an architectural landmark. Even at the time, when the estate was in disrepair, the modest, two-story, white timber-framed cottage appealed to Hammershøi’s sensibilities. That summer, instead of painting landscapes, as was his habit, he worked indoors, on the second floor, in a windowed room with a balcony overlooking the extensive gardens. He produced at least four self-portraits, including this one, and related oils (see Notes). In 1916, almost immediately after Hammershøi’s death, Ida gave the largest and most finished version to the Danish state (see fig. 1 above). The artist’s wife and her descendants kept the present painting until 2014. Rarely exhibited and published, its rediscovery illuminates a pivotal moment of self-reckoning in Hammershøi’s career.
The impetus for Hammershøi’s campaign of self-representation is unknown. In 1911, he was in his mid-forties and at the height of his renown. The tranquility of his rustic retreat at Spurveskjul seems to have encouraged him to reflect on his vocation and the interior motifs that defined his reputation. In comparison with the artist’s earlier self-portraits, the self-portraits of 1911 are distinguished by a new degree of introspection, a deeper sense of melancholy, and a more direct engagement with the viewer. They are also among Hammershøi’s most explicit explorations of his self-identity as an artist: he depicts himself engaged in the act of painting.
The Met’s work shows Hammershøi gazing outward with his left hand raised, as if reflected in a mirror. This aspect of the representation places the painting within an important lineage of modernist self-portraits. Prior to the 1860s, European artists generally "corrected" the mirror image and depicted themselves holding their tools in their right hands. Michael Fried argues that paintings such as this one, which maintain the mirror-reversal of left and right, indicated a new fidelity to visual experience and emphasized the self-consciousness of the act of painting.
Hammershøi does not appear to hold a paintbrush or other tool, but the edge of his easel is just visible. The sunlit door and window behind him are two of his signature motifs. Hammershøi’s interest in spatial ambiguities is evident in his depiction of the glass-paned balcony door and the view through it, which plays with the distinction of interior and exterior (see also The Met 2012.203
). This type of perceptual game with mirrors and rooms is a notable characteristic of a number of artist’s self-portraits of the period (see, for example, The Met 1980.208
). Poul Vad, writing about the similar composition in the Statens Museum, observes that a mirror could not capture the scene in its entirety, and concludes that Hammershøi created a composite view of his self-portrait and the room. Mauve underpaint is evident in the face in The Met's version, and the contours of the figure have been visibly reworked, attesting to the experimental spirit and bold handling that Hammershøi cultivated in his late self-portraits.The Series:
The series of self-portraits and related works awaits in-depth consideration. The most thorough explication to date is Vad 1992 (pp. 304–8), although he does not take into account The Met picture. Concentrating on the better-known cognate in the Statens Museum, he analyzes Hammershøi’s compositional correlation between the interior and the figure, and the work's psychological implications. He also discusses the continued evolution of Hammershøi’s self-representation in his two final self-portraits, one painted as a commission for the Uffizi in 1913, and another, which remains in a private collection, from 1914. Many questions remain about the 1911 series, chief among them, the exact relationship among the various paintings and their sequence of creation. The Met's picture, in particular, bears a close kinship to the Statens Museum painting, but The Met's version is notably distinct in its handling, cropping, and even in the artist’s features—an independent artistic statement with its own unique emotional tenor and spatial complexities. It aptly represents an artist searching, quite literally, to express himself.
Alison Hokanson 2020
 Quoted in Felix Krämer et al., Hammershøi
, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2008, p. 18.
 Poul Vad, Vilhelm Hammershøi and Danish Art at the Turn of the Century
, trans. Kenneth Tindall, New Haven, 1992, p. 304.
 Emily Braun in Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism in Scandinavian Painting, 1880–1910
, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, 1982, p. 137.
 Michael Fried, Manet's Modernism, or, the Face of Painting in the 1860s
, Chicago, 1996, pp. 370–73.
 Vad 1992, pp. 342–46.