a modern Danish aesthetic?


Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor painted in 1901 by Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) in the collection of Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen


In the Spring and through into the early summer, there was an important exhibition of the works of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi at the museum and gallery at Ordrupgaard which is just to the north of Copenhagen. With the title At Home with Hammershøi, the exhibition focused on an amazing series of paintings of interiors that he produced when he and his wife were living in an apartment that they rented in Strandgade in Christianshavn from 1898 through to 1910. 

The rooms have plain walls that were painted in soft greys or creams with all the woodwork simple colours - rather than picked out with any gilding - and furniture is relatively simple, set back against the walls, although they had a piano, at least one bookcase and with a few small paintings and simple pottery. This is in marked contrast to photographs and paintings that survive of what must have been more typical middle-class homes in the city with carpets, heavy curtains, upholstered furniture and banks of paintings on the walls.

Was Hammershøi reacting to the clutter of rooms in middle-class homes of the late-19th century? Was it simply that furniture was carefully rearranged for the painting? Was it a consequence of poverty or, at least, the relative poverty of an artist although he came from a middle-class family and while they lived in Strandgade, Hammershøi spent time in London and in Rome. These paintings are certainly not about ostentatious affluence. Whatever the reasons for their restrained good taste, they do seem to reflect a clear and recognisable Danish design aesthetic and these are interiors that we can appreciate as distinctly modern.

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an interior by Vilhelm Hammershøi

An interior in a house in Strandgade in Copenhagen with sunlight on the floor, painted by Vilhelm Hammershøi in 1901.

Painted in the apartment on Christianshavn, where the artist and his wife lived, the position of the door and the bright light shining through the window indicate that this room was on the south side of the building and looked into the courtyard. Although much of the mood of the painting depends on the sparseness of the furnishings - the catalogue of an exhibition of the artist’s work in London and Tokyo in 2008 described his paintings of interiors as “unsettlingly empty, silent and still” - photographs that survive of these rooms show that furniture, even if deliberately staged by the artist for his paintings, was furniture actually in the apartment and the rooms were certainly not cluttered. Can the paintings be seen as an example or, at least, as an interpretation of the taste and simple restraint to be found in the interiors of some middle-class houses in the city in the 19th century?


Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) was the son of a wealthy merchant. He studied first at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen and then with the artist Peder Severin Krøyer. His life-long friend and brother-in-law was the painter Peter Isted. This painting (KMS3696) is one of a series Hammershøi painted in the apartment in Strandgade and is now in the collection of the National Gallery in Copenhagen - Statens Museum for Kunst