Mirror To Society: A Conclusion 

Mirror to Society: The use of the Rückenfigur in Vilhelm Hammershøi’s depictions of the domestic sphere

This research considered the intention and connotations surrounding the use of the Rückenfigur in Vilhelm Hammershøi’s depictions of women and the domestic sphere. Sources would suggest that Hammershøi’s intentions when painting Bedroom, 1890 were purely artistic, focused on creating his own version of the motif seen in other artists’ works.

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Vilhelm Hammershøi, Bedroom, 1890, Oil on Canvas, 73 x 58 cm, The Hirschsprung Collection, Copenhagen, Denmark.

However, one must take into account that like Hammershøi, Bedroom, was a product of that time. One cannot assess the connotations of the Rückenfigur through purely formal means but instead through the lens of Danish societal contexts. Through the research and comparisons to the texts of Angela Holdsworth, Ellen Key, and Henrik Ibsen, one can create a clearer picture of the position of the Danish woman during this period. When viewed in this light, the connotations of the static female figure become those of confinement within the female role. Moreover, through the reference to White Doors (Open Doors), 1905, what is initially seen as an empty interior space, on closer inspection depicts a domestic sphere which women were obliged to inhabit by the societal pressures that surrounded their gender. In this way, one can liken Hammershøi’s Bedroom and White Doors (Open Doors) to be a depiction of Danish society’s treatment of women, mirroring the inequality that these women faced.

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Vilhelm Hammershøi, White Doors (Open Doors), 1905, Oil on Canvas, 52.5 x 60 cm, The David Collection, Copenhagen, Denmark.

The reference of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House replicates the life of a Scandinavian woman who feels unfulfilled in her role within the house and within her marriage. The narrative of the play helps to illustrate the feelings of isolation and detachment that can be seen in the depiction of the domestic sphere of White Doors (Open Doors), drawing connotations of the interior space as similar to Rückenfigur despite the lack of figure depicted. Due to the bare furnishings of the white walls and doors, the space negates identity in the much the same way as the female figure. In this way, White Doors (Open Doors) can be argued as depicting the Rückenfigur due to the blank canvas that it depicts, allowing the viewer to project themselves into it. Through the comparison of the set of A Doll’s House, one can picture Nora walking around the space monotonously, trapped within the home and her female role. By further comparison, one can liken both the character Nora and the interior space of White Doors (Open Doors) as depicting the confined world that women, like the female figure in Bedroom, were limited to during this period in Denmark.

There are contrasting opinions on the use of the Rückenfigur in paintings as a whole. The Rückenfigur is used to establish a relationship with the viewer and subject through the lack of identity, the painter inviting them to experience the world as the figure does. If one argues that the Rückenfigur in Bedroom can be used as a reference to show the isolation of women in the home during this time, then this relationship between viewer and subject produces a way for the viewer to, in a way, put themselves in the female figure’s shoes and experience her life. However, this contention is not without controversy. The Rückenfigur in Bedroom is not completely accessible to the audience of today. This is largely due to her period dress which makes her appears to less accessible to a modern-day audience and hence the distance that is established between the viewer and figure, strengthened by the different/private perspective which only the female figure has looking out of the window. By analysing the Rückenfigur from this perspective, one can see that the viewer cannot fully experience the life of the figure and in turn the societal pressures on women in Denmark at this time. Weighing these arguments together, there appears to be merit in both. Although the Rückenfigur does give access for the viewer to imagine themselves in the role of women in the domestic sphere during this period, the distance depicted creates a sense of voyeurism in the viewer. Even though the viewer can understand on some level the experience of the female figure in Bedroom, this knowledge can only go so far. Due to the drastic change in society since the turn of the twentieth century, contemporary viewers cannot fully understand all aspects that are exhibited by Hammershøi’s Rückenfigur.

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