I like to think that the slant of light in this photograph is more than a happy accident. Ida and Vilhlem Hammershoi are seated at a table, light falling on them from a source beyond the picture frame. The year was 1906 and the Danish painter and his wife were visiting the Sussex home of their British friend and patron, concert pianist Leonard Borwick (1868-1925).
If Borwick was the photographer, he may have made this image deliberately, as an homage to his friend the painer. Although Hammershoi painted many domestic scenes, he did not use them to reveal the details of his domestic life and this has left a void that speculation has rushed to fill.
There are similarities to Hammershoi's style and, at the same time, echoes Hammershoi's 1898 painting of himself and Ida seated at a table.
Hammershoi (1864-1916) painted interior scenes throughout his career and with his marriage to Ida Ilsted in 1891 established a home that provided him with subject matter ready to hand. Already, in 1893, we see the characteristic devices, light coming from an unseen source (often from the left) an open door, and Ida presnted in a recognizable Nordic pose. Similarly, David Alan Brown in his book Virtue And Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra de' Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women (Princeton University Press: 2001) explores the variations to be found in the left-turned profile in portraiture.
If Hammershoi does not lay his life bare in his paintings, he gives us what art critics call a 'projection surface', for us to fill by imagination. What he said about these images in an interview in 1907 was this:
"What makes me choose a motif are...the lines, what I like to call the architectural content of the image. And then there's the light, of course. Obviously, that's very important, but I think it's the lines that have the greatest significance for me. Color is naturally not without importance. I'm really not indifferent to how the motif's colors look. I work hard to make it look harmonious. But when I choose a motif, I'm thinking first and foremost of the lines."
During their marriage, the Hammershois lived in a series of apartments in the Christianhavn section of Copenhagen, built in the 17th century on the eastern side of the city. Built to King Christian's urban plan, the building were made from stone, to better keep out the cold, and with long windows to let in the maximum amount of sunlight. From 1898 to 1908 the Hammershois lived at Strandgade 30, they moved to Bredgade 25 in 1910, and in 1913 to the Asiatic Company Building at Strandgade 25.
It can be difficult to orient ourselves in these rooms, at least partly because the source of light most often comes from the left, even though the couple lived on both the northwest and southeast sides of Strandgade. There are reasons to think that Hammershoi admired the work of the Dutch master Vermeer and not only in the common slant of light they preferred . As with Vermeer's woman reading a letter (below), Hammershoi's image of Ida reading a book reveals less than we want to know, leading us to interrogate the placement of each object for clues.
For Hammershoi, the suggestion of a window is often enough; its importance as a source of light is what matters, just as a door may be open or closed. In A Dictionary of Symbols(1962) , J. E. Cirlot wrote that it is the relationship between the circumference and the center of a room that matters, "even though in each case the two component elements are the farthest apart, they are nonetheless, in a way, the closest since the one determines and reflects the other." Often we look across an empty foreground at layers of a scene, invisible to the ordinary eye, but made explicit by the artist.
In the face of such subtlety, critics have been tempted to imagine matrimonial dramas but the dramatic impetus may come from the artist himself. Both Vilhelm and Ida were considered sensitive characters by their friends. One critic even described Hammershoi as the first neurasthenic artist.
An early enthusiast, Hermann Bahr wrote in 1894: "One must...have receptive and sensitive nerves that immediately respond to the slightest hint, otherwise this art will be without effect. And then there is something rarer and more difficult one must be accustomed to self-analysis... in order to transmit each nervous impulse to the mind."
For me, a Hammerhoi interior makes visible the tenuous balance between possibility and distance in human life, highly finished images that portray the hauntingly unfinished nature of human emotions. On a practical level Copenhagen, situated on the same latitude as Moscow, has very short days in winter (8:30 A.M.-3:30 P.M.) and very long ones in summer (3:30 A.M.-10 P.M.). Regardless of length and, even on sunny days, the city has been described as wearing a "grey overcoat." Mysterious, transparent, and mobile, light is like a Zen koan. Images:
1. unknown photographer - Ida & Vilhelm Hammerhoi at Borwick's-Sussex, 1906, Royal Academy of Art, London.
2. Vilhelm Hammershoi - The Artist and His Wife, 1898, Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus, Denmark.
3. Vilhelm Hammesrhoi - Interior, Ny Bakkehus, Fredericksberg, 1893, Gotsborg Konsthall, Gothenborg, Sweden.
4. Vilhlem Hammershoi - The Music Room at Strandgade 30, 1907.
5. Vilhelm Hammershoi - Sunshine in The Drawing Room, 1903, National Museum, Stockholm.
6. Vilhelm Hammershoi - Ida Reading. Strandgade 30, 1909, Sonderjylland Museum, Kunstmuseet Brundlandslot, Aabenraa.
7. Johannes Vermeer - Woman Reading A Letter, c.1657-1664, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
8. Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior with Ida Playing the Paino, 1910, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.