Mirror To Society Part One: An Introduction 

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

This series of articles will explore the uses of the Rückenfigur and the depiction of interior space in Vilhelm Hammershøi’s (1864-1916) paintings compared with other Northern European artists. This will include an investigation of the connotations of female inequality at the turn of the twentieth century, with reference to both secondary and primary feminist literature. In this way, one can question the way in which Hammershøi’s paintings provide a mirror to the societal mistreatment of women through the enclosures of the home, excluding them from the dangers of the outside world. Hammershøi’s intention throughout his artistic career was to explore the linear structure of the interior space of his home. Although there is no evidence to suggest that Hammershøi’s intent when creating Bedroom was to reflect Danish society’s treatment of women, like all artists, Hammershøi’s was a product of his time. His work and ideas were, as Deborah Cherry argues, “shaped by and viewed within formal aesthetic conventions, critical writings on art and a tangle of contending contemporary discourses”. Hammershøi was not concerned with consumer society or new leisure of the modern-day Denmark but was instead focused on older subjects with “traces of lived life”. Instead, Hammershøi was described as a “cool observer”. By understanding Hammershøi’s attitude to society around him as one of indifference, one can further understand that the intention of his depictions of women in his paintings were merely aesthetic and did not have a societal purpose. However, as Cherry writes, the understanding of any artist’s work depends on the “intertextuality, its relations to a web of references and texts from which it is woven”. The analysis will primarily be carried out in relation to the female figure, and the domestic space that the figure inhabits, in Bedroom, 1890.

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

Analysis of the connotations of the combination of the grey colour palette, the subversion of the popular motif, and the significance of the Rückenfigur will be considered with the effect of artistic influence from other Northern European artists. A range of methodological approaches will be used: including feminist, social historical, iconographic, and formalist. Social historical references will be employed to give a well-rounded context to the paintings, paired with feminist resources to illuminate varied readings to discuss the lives and roles of women during this time. The methodological approach of iconography will be used to discuss the varied uses and connotations of the depictions of the Rückenfigur in Hammershøi’s domestic space, as well as the contrasts between other artists’ uses of the motif. Heinrich Wölfflin’s formalism will also be used in the formal analysis of both Bedroom and White Doors (Open Doors), 1905.

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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 mixture of methodological approaches together helps to create a broad but detailed perspective of the ways in which Hammershøi’s paintings of domestic spaces reflects the position and role of women in Danish society at the time.

The lack of information regarding women’s lives and roles from primary Danish sources has limited the research of this particular topic. However, sources from societally similar Northern European and Scandinavian countries will be used. This will include secondary sources describing British and Dutch women’s lives within their female role in the home, as well as primary sources from Scandinavian writers. In particular, the analysis will include a comparison with Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House, following the experience of a Norwegian woman dealing with lack of independence and legal/financial security. Although it would appear that Hammershøi’s intention when depicting the domestic space in Bedroom and White Doors (Open Doors) was not to represent a social comment on the position of women and their role, the comparison between the female character, Nora, in A Doll’s House helps to give the female Rückenfigur in Bedroom a voice. 

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