Vilhelm Hammershoi’s Silence and Emptiness.

Vilhelm Hammershoi self portrait and cover image by Artsapien

Vilhelm Hammershoi was a Danish painter who was not very well-known outside of his native country until his paintings spiked the interest of many viewers in an exhibition. With that, his dull and muted scenes of mostly house interiors cast an enigmatic light on people, making them feel a series of unknown emotions. 

It is difficult to attribute a style to the artist. His paintings were a beautiful mix of multiple styles, mostly symbolism, naturalism, and a hint of realism. However, the artist was not trying to give his artwork any specific style. 

In a rare interview, since not much about the artist is known, Hammershoi said “ “I have always thought there was such beauty about a room even though there weren’t any people in it, perhaps precisely when there weren’t any.” This quote shows the artist’s fascination with painting quiet, empty, and dimly lit rooms with a washed-out, muted color palette. 

So why did the artist make these paintings, and most importantly, what does the painting convey to the viewers? Many people might feel a sense of quietness, a feeling of emptiness, a vague sense of longing. Just like the paintings made by the artist, your emotional experience is just as unique as the meaning you derive from these paintings. 

The Emotional Impact of His Paintings

Vilhelm Hammershoi made hundreds of paintings in his entire career. Right from the beginning, the artist had understood his style; a muted color palette, and the study of people and things in a suspended or arrested state. By “suspended” or “arrested,” I mean a very vulnerable state, almost as if the people are not aware that they are being painted. 

Hammershoi worked in a time when capturing a scene did not require a paintbrush or a canvas. The camera was on the rise. So he started painting people and things almost as if he was taking a picture of the subjects. 

Portrait of a Young Woman by Vilhelm Hammershoi
Portrait of a Young Woman by Vilhelm Hammershoi. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

For example, in this painting, titled “Portrait of a Young Woman” the artist painted his sister, casually sitting. Notice how it looks almost like a picture taken from a camera. The hallmarks of a portrait usually include people looking at the viewers, or at least being in a posture or position that suggests they are being painted. But here, his sister Anna seems to be resting for a moment, about to get up and leave. 

So it was the artist’s ability to capture these insignificant, ephemeral moments in these paintings that give them that vividly nostalgic appeal. It’s like finding a photograph of yourself in a moment you had completely forgotten and going back to that moment, remembering things vividly. 

Hammershoi’s portraits of everyone, including his own, look more like a hazy charcoal sketch than a painting by a painter trained in realism. You’ll not find more than three shades of color, all painted in muted hues, with a scarce amount of light. These portraits look like daguerreotypes marred by a haze like someone fused impressionism with photography. 

Muted and subdued tones, scarce lighting, and a haze around the features create this dream-like look, a dream where the colors have been washed off. That was the style of Hammershoi when it came to making portraits of people. But the artist actually became famous for making paintings of empty spaces. 

Arrested by Interiors 

Vilhelm Hammershoi’s most famous and celebrated paintings are the interior paintings during his mature period. The artist lived in Copenhagen his entire life. He lived in Strandgade 30 with his wife and then shifted to Strandgade 25. It was in these two houses that the artist showed us something so simple, yet so powerful. 

The paintings of the interior usually show a minimally furnished, almost empty space. The walls are gray and white, the windows do not show a lush and colorful environment outside. The lighting is also dim, even in paintings that show a sunny day. If there are any people in the room, they are usually turned back or are not looking at the viewers; they are busy in their work or in their thoughts. 

This sort of scarce environment is filled with powerful emotions. You can almost hear the painting, the quietness, and the coolness of the environment. You can imagine walking on the floor, hearing every creek of the wooden floor. When left all alone in these empty spaces, you find yourself thinking about your life, and your memories, and a sense of nostalgia takes over. 

Interior With Young Man Reading
Interior With Young Man Reading (1898) by Vilhelm Hammershoi. Public Domain via Wikimedia commons.

You can notice that the paintings are not made to look realistic. That was not the goal of the artist. The artist was fascinated by the architecture of the houses, the old furniture just sitting there, the lines of the wall and the floor running parallel to each other. 

He remarked “What makes me choose a motif are… the lines, what I like to call the architectonic attitude in the picture. And then the light, naturally. Naturally, it also has a great deal to say, but what means practically the most for me is the lines.”

He painted these suspended moments where the viewers are just dropped in the middle of the room. The stillness of the moment makes you want to keep quiet so that you do not disturb this blanket of silence. If there are any people in the painting, they are always busy doing their thing. Certainly, a noise would disturb them. This is why these paintings feel so silent. 

Paintings Without Colors

It’s not that Hammershoi did not use colors in his paintings. He did, but most of the colors were either gray, white or some muted form of yellow. Even in paintings that show exteriors of buildings and even a landscape, the colors are subdued and washed out. 

Perhaps this was done to give that gloomy feeling, a feeling of being lost looking at these walls. The apparent silence that these paintings emanate perfectly complements the dull and muted tones of the painting. It makes you feel a cold wind gently passing by, the moisture in the air, and the tranquil state of the surroundings. 

Vilhelm Hammershoi used simple scenes, nothing grand, something fantastic. All he did was paint what he saw in his apartment. And now, after more than a century, you can see that too. But more importantly, you can feel what he felt, walking across the rooms of Strandgarde 30 and 25. 

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