I have before me a postcard of a Vilhelm Hammershøi self-portrait. I love everything about it: the placement of the figure slightly off to the side, the ochres, blues and browns, the suggested body beneath a bulky wool jacket, the loose collar at the neck.
Mostly, I admire the restraint. Here you have this technically brilliant portrait that is largely obscured by shadow. Too often artists are unable to sacrifice showboating for the end result. But not Hammershøi.
All the clues to the sitter’s character are there: piercing dark eyes—the left one still visible despite the gloom—the hint of a lip and furrow in a broad brow. With these few suggestions we have the sum of the man: he’s soulful, intense, intelligent.
Hammershøi specialized in interior scenes depicted with a quiet poetry reminiscent of Vemeer. When you see these luminous studies in grays with their spare, unconventionally arranged compositions and minimalist palette, you think immediately of Whistler. Comparing the two artists it’s clear that Hammershøi’s work is more abstract and less romantic with a haunting psychological leitmotif. Hammershøi’s wife is present in most of these paintings, though most often her back is toward the viewer. (One can’t imagine Whistler carrying on in this fashion for long—he never could quite divest himself of a pretty face).
Thirty years Whistler’s junior, Hammershøi (1864-1916) is celebrated in his native Denmark, but with the exception of a show at London’s Royal Academy in 2008, is not all that well known outside his own country.