Vilhelm Hammershøi and the Poetry of Silence

The first ever UK retrospective of the work of Vilhelm Hammershøi is showing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until 7 September writes Katya Kan and features over seventy paintings by the Danish artist. Hammershøi’s works are famed for conveying an atmosphere of equanimity and mystery: therapeutic by nature, his paintings almost lull the viewer into an absent-minded daze…

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The first ever UK retrospective of the work of Vilhelm Hammershøi is showing at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until 7 September writes Katya Kan and features over seventy paintings by the Danish artist. Hammershøi’s works are famed for conveying an atmosphere of equanimity and mystery: therapeutic by nature, his paintings almost lull the viewer into an absent-minded daze…

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Hammershøi’s manipulation of geometrical shapes, like rectangles (above), can create a sense of stability and composure. This painting’s delicate combination of pastel-beige, pink and blue also contributes to its underlying serenity

Stylistically, Hammershøi was more preoccupied with the depiction of lines than in the portrayal of light and colour when composing his paintings. For instance, he intentionally reduced his range of colours, making them more concentrated and compliant to artistic improvisation. As he articulated in an interview in 1907: “What makes me choose a motif is as much the lines in it, what I would call the architectural stance of the picture.”

The son of a merchant, Hammershøi grew up in a well-off environment in Copenhagen and later married Ida Ilsted, the sister of an artist friend. He frequently journeyed to London, Paris, Italy and the Netherlands and, after his work was declined by official exhibitions, he established a separate Free Exhibition in Copenhagen.

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With her back to the viewer, Hammershøi provides no visual clue to the identity of the sitter (above) but the painting leads the viewer’s eye in a circular movement around its internal forms

Hammershøi was to some extent influenced by the Dutch seventeenth century painter, Jan Vermeer, particularly in the isolation of his subjects and in the creation of a calm and reflective atmosphere containing geometric shapes. Similarly, Hammershøi’s cityscapes are analogous to those of the American painter, Edward Hopper, notably in his use of geometric lines and seemingly uninhabited spaces.

This outstanding exhibition offers viewers an exclusive opportunity to experience the oeuvre of a distinctive Scandinavian artist. Where Hammershøi’s interiors convey an unrivalled feeling of serenity; his rare scenes of people communicate perhaps a deeper, jarring sense of mystery. As RA curator Maryanne Stevens suggests, the show is rather like “a programme of meditation.”

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For more information on Vilhelm Hammershøi: The Poetry of Silencevisit visit royalacademy.org.uk.

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