Mirror To Society Part Three: Link to Ibsen, Mirror To Society/Consequences of the Motif

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

The second chapter of this research will focus on the social historical context of women’s lives during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in order to understand to a better degree the connotations that Vilhelm Hammershøi’s depictions of interior spaces denote. By referring to Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, the expectations and internal emotions of the average woman during this time become clearer. This can help to understand the quiet solitary state of the Rückenfigur in Bedroom, 1890.

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

Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, which premiered in Copenhagen in 1879, tells the story of a woman, Nora, and her husband, Torvald. The main themes of the play focus on Nora’s dissatisfaction within her marriage due to lack of identity and independence. Although there is no way to know if Hammershøi attended a production of A Doll’s House, from his wealthy middle-class upbringing, one can assume that he would have been familiar with the plot and themes of the play. There is evidence to show that Hammershøi was fond of Ibsen’s other work. After his death, Hammershøi’s library collection was auctioned in 1916. 1,053 auction lots were released, including fourteen plays by Ibsen. A Doll’s House was not included but this does tend to confirm Hammershøi’s awareness and interest in Ibsen’s plays. Due to the presumed influence that Ibsen had upon Hammershøi and the similarities between the two artists’ works, it is instructive to compare and contrast the female lead character of Nora to the female figure depicted in Bedroom, which, paired with feminist historical context, can clarify the connotations of Hammershøi’s Rückenfigur. Further, the interior space used in A Doll’s House compared to the landscape pictured in Hammershøi’s 1905 painting, White Doors (Open Doors) can also be used to analyse the lives of women within the domestic space.

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

Although Vilhelm Hammershøi did not intend to paint Bedroom as a comment on the isolation of female life in the domestic sphere, the social historical context of Danish women’s lives illuminates different perspectives. Due to the connotations of the artist’s use of colour, motif, and Rückenfigur, one can draw comparisons with the solitary state of female life in the late nineteenth century. A Doll’s House uses themes of female dependence to highlight Nora’s dissatisfaction with her marriage and domestic life. This dissatisfaction is emphasised by the characters around her, notably Mrs Linde, a widow who inherited nothing from her husband in his will and is therefore forced into financial uncertainty. Also, by Nora’s husband Torvald, who constantly belittles and patronises Nora. The rich narrative and emotion displayed in the characters of A Doll’s House are in contrast to the stoic, distant woman depicted in Bedroom. Where Nora shows dissatisfaction and anger at her excluded and controlled situation in A Doll’s House, the female figure in Bedroom does not resist the man-made enclosure around her, instead sinking among the furniture, becoming part of the fabric of the interior. Nonetheless, the female figure depicted in Bedroom compared with the character of Nora in A Doll’s House does strengthen the feeling of powerlessness and exclusion that the female figure silently represents.

Turning to the similarities between the depictions of female life in Hammershøi’s Bedroom and the character of Nora in A Doll’s House, despite the scarcity of primary sources concerning gender issues in Denmark, one can draw comparisons between other societally similar Northern European countries. For example, Holdsworth writes about female life in Great Britain during the early twentieth century. Through this work, we learn that women were not only legally dependent on their husbands, but also that they had no separate personal legal identity. This can be seen throughout the fabric of Nora’s character, as she feels she has no financial or legal independence from her husband and resorts to hiding her spending from Torvald, ‘[Puts the bag of macaroons into her pocket and wipes her/mouth]’. This theme of resentment at her own inequality can be seen throughout the play. Financial dependence was a key factor in the lack of personal identity of women at the time because they had no legal status of their own. Their livelihood depended entirely on their husband’s money. Ellen Key, a Swedish feminist writer active in the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century, writes about “The Woman Movement” and its effects on women and marriage. Key writes that single women often avoided love, as it became something that was connected to their freedom and would “force the bending of their will to another’s will”, suggesting that love and freedom for women at this time were mutually exclusive. This is illustrated by Nora referring to the house as her ‘husband’s house’, furthering the notion that none of the belongings are hers. This is also emphasised by Torvald’s language as he calls Nora ‘my little skylark’, patronising her and likening her to a bird in a cage, a metaphor for Nora’s captive state within her life.

The title A Doll’s House strengthens the idea of a woman needing to be protected within the artificial domestic world as opposed to being exposed to the stressful demands of the man’s world outside. Holdsworth writes that “Doll’s House Women”, as she refers to them, were protected and idealised, but confined to the safe interior of the domestic sphere. This notion is reflected both in the title of A Doll’s House and in the exclusion depicted in Bedroom. The female figure in Hammershøi’s painting witnesses the outside world through a glass barrier, guarded from external polluting influences but also excluded, as Torvald says to Nora ‘you needn’t/ ruin your dear eyes and your pretty little hands’, emphasising her delicacy and lack of capability to cope in the real world outside of the home. The protection and preservation of women from the outside world is also shown through Torvald’s language to his wife. Nora is given pet names by her husband, such as ‘spendthrift’, and ‘little squirrel’, thus stripping her of her maturity as an adult woman, implying that she needs to be looked after by him as she is frivolous and impulsive through the use of the diminutive ‘little’. The condescending tone that Torvald employs forces Nora to think about her life and the dependence that she has upon her husband. This is reflected not only in Ibsen’s portrayal of Torvald, but also having regard to the position of women in society at the time in Scandinavia as emphasised in the character of Mrs Linde. Mrs Linde is used by Ibsen to focus on the dependence of women like Nora on their husbands. For example, Nora asks Mrs Linde what her husband left her after his death, asking her about money and children. Mrs Linde replies ‘No.’ to both questions. To this, Nora replies ‘Nothing at all, then’, showing that, without her husband, Mrs Linde now has nothing to live on, or for. Nora’s enquiry as to whether she has any children illustrates a large and important factor within female life at the time. Without children, women are left unfulfilled, and they have ‘no one to/ live for anymore’, showing that a women’s role at the time was completely reliant on her husband and children. If a woman does not have either of these, then she is not fulfilling her role in society as women played a vital role in rearing the next generation. Mrs Linde’s unfulfilled female role is reflected in the analysis of Bedroom by the depiction of the figure looking out into the world that she cannot enter due to the barrier of the closed window. The interior space is where the woman belongs as her role revolves around her domesticated life.

In A Doll’s House, the position of women in society is reinforced by the set description. This does not change throughout the play; the viewers only see one part of the house in both Acts. This unchanging set is reminiscent the interiors depicted in Hammershøi’s paintings. In order to focus on the linear structure of the motif that he was portraying, Hammershøi’s interiors were shown much simpler than they were. He left out furniture, wall hangings, and curtains from the picture. The bedroom is often seen as the most intimate and personal room as it is the most private. However, the grey-toned beds and bare walls in Bedroom give no details as to the personality of the female figure depicted, giving a feeling of detachment from both the figure and the surroundings, furthering the argument of the depiction of the Rückenfigur here. This bare space is amplified in the depiction of the domestic space in Hammershøi’s painting, White Doors (Open Doors), 1905.

By using Heinrich Wölfflin’s method of formalism, one can assess the formal structure of the piece using a purely visual standpoint. Five different points are used in the methodological approach of Wölfflin’s formalism. However, for the analysis of Hammershøi’s Bedroom and White Doors (Open Doors), only the concepts of linear and painterly, open form and closed form, and planar and recessional will be used. This is because Wölfflin’s formalist approach was created for the analysis of 16th and 17th century paintings to understand the ways in which Renaissance and Baroque styles differ. When applied to more contemporary works, it can reveal new aspects of the linear structure. Although the methodological approach of Wölfflin’s formalism relies on visual analysis alone, when paired with historical context, one can understand a well-rounded reading of the painting. By looking at the formal aspects of the domestic space in White Doors (Open Doors) and Bedroom, whilst also referencing the two paintings with historical context of female rights at the time, new connotations and references can be revealed from the scenes.

As mentioned before, the small, hatched strokes that Hammershøi uses create an undefined representation of interior space as the depiction is slightly hazed. This can be described as painterly, relying on colour to create forms. In the case of White Doors (Open Doors), this is created through the use of the grey-toned palette. This can also be seen in Bedroom, as the subjects are loosely defined, leaving colour to complete the composition of the interior. The use of the painterly style portrays a unified and less picturesque landscape, reflecting a sense of reality in the painting, which strengthens the link to real-life depictions of the female domestic space at the time. Even though through research of Hammershøi’s painting style one can know that he curated the spaces that he depicts to be barer and more minimalistic, the uneven illumination of forms that is depicted in Bedroom and White Doors (Open Doors) helps to present a realistic representation of a seemingly true-to-life interior space that women are confined within.

Moreover, open form is used more obviously in White Doors (Open Doors) than in Bedroom to depict a view into the interior space of the painting. The interior space depicted is not confined to the frame in which it is displayed due to the use of open form. The open doorway to the right shows evidence of more space that is not depicted by the painter; it is only the end of the canvas that ends the perspective. However, the viewer is aware of a natural space that carries on around what the artist has chosen to show. This furthers the representation of a real space that Hammershøi has not curated. Another aspect of the open form is the placement of one of the light sources that is not depicted, which seems to be coming from behind the painter/viewer as it illuminates the first wall shown. This furthers the idea of more space that is not a part of the composition.

By combining this formalist analysis with a feminist reading, one can see connotations of the depiction of the female domestic sphere and, in turn, a mirror to the societal role of women at the time. These connotations can be seen as the space where women are limited to their female role, one of confinement to their duties within the family. This reflects Angela Holdsworth’s text mentioned earlier of women being described as ‘angels of the house’. Open form is used here to create the effect of realistic space, connoting a female figure walking around it again and again, excluded from walking elsewhere. This connotation of a female figure, as opposed to a male figure, is derived from Hammershøi’s extensive use of female subjects in his interior scenes. In the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, the notion of gender equality was starting to gain momentum, with feminist agitation being “well-rooted since the 1880s” as organised feminist movements existed in many countries, such as France, Germany, Scandinavia etc. By using this context, one can understand to a better degree the social impact that gender equality was having on society at the time when Bedroom and White Doors (Open Doors) were painted. On the other hand, Katalin Nun contradicts this as she writes that the radical thoughts of feminism did not seem to affect the Danish women of the Golden Age, or if they did, the thoughts were suppressed in their own minds. Even if this theory is right, through the analysis of Bedroom and White Doors (Open Doors), this suppression is suggested through the loneliness and sadness depicted within the exclusion of the female figure.

As formalism was not created for the analysis of contemporary works, some works cannot be easily described using only one of Wölfflin’s terms. White Doors (Open Doors) can be described as either planar or recessional. Recessional could apply as the door is painted at a slight angle to the viewer, leading the eye to the light source at the back of the scene. On the other hand, the term planar could also be used to describe the space due to the creation of separate picture planes. The doorframes create these planes that construct distinct detached areas. Nonetheless, these separated areas are disrupted by the flash of natural light protruding from the back of the interior towards the front. This view into a back space was popularised by seventeenth century Dutch masters, as seen in Pieter de Hooch’s 1657 painting, Woman Peeling Vegetables in the Back Room of a Dutch House, to give an informal glimpse into everyday life.

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Pieter de Hooch, Woman Peeling Vegetables in the Back Room of a Dutch House, 1657, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 49 cm, Louvre Palace, Paris, France.

Hammershøi uses this motif in White Doors (Open Doors) to emphasise a sense of emptiness within the space. So, arguably by creating both a planar and recessional space in White Doors (Open Doors), one can draw comparisons with the set of a play, something that leads the viewer through a realistic space but also only shows what is necessary for the narrative. By using the analysis of planar and recessional, one can again see the comparison to the set of A Doll’s House, where the audience is only shown parts of the house and is never led into any exterior space. This traps the viewer in the domestic space with the characters. This aspect is mirrored in White Doors (Open Doors), as the viewer is not allowed to move from the space they are in. Multiple ways out are shown to them, namely through one of the doors, but they cannot reach them. This is strengthened by the light source reaching out towards the viewer, crossing the picture plane, but not able to illuminate the space which the viewer is occupying. On the other hand, the female figure in Bedroom is completely trapped within the space depicted without any way out. Like White Doors (Open Doors), Bedroom can be argued to be also both planar and recessional, depicting a realistic landscape that the viewer is a part of. Combined with the use of open form, the viewer is pushed into the space, almost blocking the figure from a possible exit behind them. The window is closed, and the figure is forced to accept their fate as excluded from the outside world.

The interior space depicted in White Doors (Open Doors) can also be compared to the narrative of A Doll’s House, emanating the aftermath of the final scene. The play ends with Nora leaving her ‘husband’s house’ and her children. The final stage directions ‘[The sound of a door shutting is heard from below]’ shows that the viewer does not see Nora leave, only hears the sound. White Doors (Open Doors) depicts a sense of movement, through the doors painted open, as if somebody had just moved through the space and out of it beyond the viewer’s reach. This can be compared to the setting of A Doll’s House, just after Nora had left: an empty house with the evidence of past human activity within it. Kirk Varnedoe writes of White Doors (Open Doors), that the room is ‘filled with the sense of someone’s recent departure’ and the hope of their return. This can be seen in Torvald’s final line of the play, just before Nora leaves, ‘[A hope flashes/ across his mind.] The most wonderful thing of all–?’, he hopes that she will change her mind before she leaves and return to her doll’s house but instead this line is greeted with the door closing. This stagnant tone is prevalent in both Bedroom and White Doors (Open Doors), as Hammershøi leaves a sense that time has stopped due to the inward reflection that is depicted.

As previously mentioned, the Rückenfigur used in Bedroom gives the audience both a sense of relatability and distance from the figure. The viewer can both relate to the female figure but is also detached from the scene because there is no connection between the viewer and subject. This creates a sense of stagnant time, as the viewer is unreachable to an extent, highlighting the hazy feeling that the picture emanates. By contrast, White Doors (Open Doors) does not feature the Rückenfigur, nonetheless one could argue that, due to the minimalistic furnishings, the scene does allow the viewer to enter it and experience it in the same way that the painter is. For example, like with the Rückenfigur in Bedroom, there are no personal additions to the scene, no wall hangings or furniture, nothing that can connote a specific type of person. White Doors (Open Doors) can be seen as a blank slate the viewer can project themselves onto, in the same way as the unidentifiable female figure in Bedroom. This furthers the argument that Hammershøi’s interiors can be seen as a depiction of the female domestic space through the use of the Rückenfigur. One can liken both Bedroom and White Doors (Open Doors) to representations of the female domestic space that mirrors the societal role that women during this period inhabited.

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