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 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.


the house in Strandgade - taken in the evening to show light still falling on the first-floor windows where Vilhelm Hammershøi and his wife Ida Isted lived when they rented the apartment. The arch give access to the courtyard with the main staircase on the right


The house was built in the 1630s - shortly after the area was established on land claimed from the sea - on the south side of the harbour and between the castle and the low-lying island of Amager. It was grand when built but had been much altered although panelling and plaster work from a remodelling of the house in the 18th century are good.

Hammershøi rented the first floor, with three large rooms looking down onto the street but there were also two smaller rooms, one an entrance hall and the other called the courtyard room, to the rear and overlooking the narrow courtyard and there was also a small parlour and servants room and kitchen down a narrow range on one side of the courtyard and two further rooms, in a narrow range running back from the main staircase, along the other side of the courtyard with these smaller rooms linked by a gallery over the entrance arch. There were 11 rooms in all, on three sides of the yard, so not small by modern standards, and the main rooms had panelling below the dado rail and panelled doors and some good stoves.

With large windows and light from the street side facing towards the harbour and from the windows onto the courtyard facing south, Hammershøi painted a large series of paintings of the interior with a careful staging of the relatively simple furniture but concentrating on recording the effects of light as it came through the tall sash windows and only a couple of the rooms had curtains or shutters. In some of the paintings there is a female figure, his wife or his young servant, who are given a sense of an inner calm - or maybe they were bored - but they are shown reading, arranging flowers or standing, back to the artist, waiting. One painting has the view across the courtyard to a woman leaning out of an open window to look down, presumably at someone below, but this is as close as the paintings get to any indication of a narrative story. The paintings also record the rooms at different times of day including the evening as clearly the fascination for Hammershøi was the movement of the sun through the day and the changing light.

Ordrupgaard had an exceptionally good visual programme on screens through the gallery that related the paintings back to the specific room in the apartment and analysed the way the light was shown falling across the floors to record different times of the day.

The exhibition and the paintings also showed just how good and how important natural light is in these Copenhagen apartments … then and now.