Mirror To Society Part Two: The Analysis and the Role of Women at the Time 

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

The first chapter of this research will focus on the importance of motif to Vilhelm Hammershøi’s painting process, represented through Bedroom, 1890, and the role of women in Danish society at the time.

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

The painting depicts a female figure looking out of a window from inside a bedroom. The viewer only sees the figure from the back and is not permitted to receive the same perspective as the subject. Through the window, the spectator can see a glimpse of the outside landscape, a grey sky and equally monotone trees with little to no foliage. The motif of a female figure looking out of a window was popular amongst artists throughout history as it depicted a sense of awe and excitement at the events of the outside world. However, Hammershøi’s version of this popular motif of positivity and excitement is drastically modified to give a sense of negativity, exclusion, and inward reflection. The female figure can also be seen as the Rückenfigur, drawing comparisons to the lives of women in the home during this period. In this way, Bedroom can be argued to hold up a mirror to Danish society at the time.

In order to understand the difference in stylistic choices that Hammershøi adopted in Bedroom, it is instructive to compare the painting to that of other artists’ use of the motif, for example, Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman at a Window, 1822.

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Caspar David Friedrich, Woman at a Window, 1822, Oil on Canvas, 44 x 37 cm, Alte National gallery, Berlin, Germany.

This painting depicts a much more positive scene using the same motif of a woman looking out into the world from inside the house. This is also replicated in Dutch Golden Age artists such as Jacobus Vrel and Pieter de Hooch that Hammershøi was influenced by. In Woman at a Window, Friedrich uses the motif to depict a woman looking out onto a scene that is, although partially blocked from the viewer, lit by a clear blue sky and includes green trees and a boat mast, giving the effect of a bustling picturesque scene just within the woman’s reach. The sunlight enters the room and fills the interior space. The woman, although inside the building, is not excluded from the outside landscape and the window acts as a gateway, not a barrier, thus allowing the figure to join the rest of the world. The vibrant blue sky, greenery, and boat’s mast gives a sense of movement and life. The saturation of colour used in Friedrich’s piece also heightens the positive emotive intensity of the scene, giving the feeling of adventure and excitement, which is highly contrasted in the darker colour palette of Hammershøi’s Bedroom. The impression of movement is represented by the boat’s mast. Although a small inclusion to the scene, this has a large effect on the outcome of the painting. The boat adds evidence of human activity in the outside world, thus emphasising that the female figure is a part of the fabric of human life.

By contrast, Hammershøi uses his own individual style to create a different interpretation of this popular motif. This difference in Hammershøi’s personal artistic style compared to that of other artists is illustrated in a quotation from P. S. Krøyer who taught Hammershøi at the Danish Royal Academy of Arts in 1885, “I have a pupil who paints most oddly. I do not understand him, but believe he is going to be important and do nothing to influence him”. The quotation illustrates the confusion and awe concerning the stylistic decisions in Hammershøi’s artwork compared with other artists. In contrast to Friedrich’s Woman at a Window, in Bedroom Hammershøi uses the motif to explore the linear structure that is created. Lines were of utmost importance to Hammershøi when choosing a subject to paint. Hammershøi is quoted as saying, “what means practically most for me (is) the lines. Of course, the colour is not immaterial, it isn’t a matter of indifference to me how it looks in colours…” By looking at this quotation, the use of the monotonic colour palette of Bedroom becomes much clearer. By using only a palette of greys, Hammershøi creates a harmonic picture that allows the motif to rely strongly on the importance of line, light, and shadow. The use of the grey palette creates a scene that seems to evade any sense of reality; the lasting impression of the scene is one of exclusion and loneliness. As Kasper Monrad writes, by condensing the motif to the basic linear structure, Hammershøi “delivers the same message as paintings of the period but strips away the narrative”. However, by doing this, the scene is left to the interpretation of the viewer, unintentionally connoting an interesting comment on the monotony of female life in Denmark at this time. Compared with the positive overtones of Friedrich’s Woman at a Window, the female figure depicted in Bedroom becomes clearly more sombre and detached from the viewer.

Hammershøi’s choice of colour palette also strengthens the sorrowful and isolated female figure depicted. The grey scale tones evoke connotations of the colour black. These connotations translate an atmosphere of negativity throughout the painting to the viewer. The cool toned grey used in Hammershøi’s colour palette is more closely related to death and sadness. When using the grey scale in painting, it is typical for the artist to employ a scale of value from maximally light to maximally dark in order to create both contrast and balance. Hammershøi does not do this, instead only using maximally dark tones in the female figure’s clothing. There is no bright light source that highlights any of the aspects of the scene, only a lighter hue that slightly brightens the outside world. This creates a picture that is slightly off-balance, furthering the feeling of uncertainty. Hypothetically, if Hammershøi did use a bright white light source emitted from the window and lighting up the female figure and part of the room, then there would be much more of a positive overtone to the scene. Instead, what emerges is a sense of spiritual intensity. Furthermore, the significance of the female figure being dressed in black draws links to early Protestant clothing. As Pastoureau writes, Protestantism’s chromo phobia had its greatest influence on clothing. In this way, the female figure’s black dress has connotations of shame and sin but also was used to show a sobriety in order to focus solely upon prayer. This draws links back to the idea of spiritual inward thought that is displayed within the scene. Hammershøi’s painting technique and style is also a large contributing factor to the tone of uneasiness in Bedroom. Hammershøi painted the foreground of his compositions bare, adding to the perception of the viewer walking in on an unguarded and private moment of contemplation. This is something that is not seen in Woman at a Window by Friedrich as the viewer is granted a certain proximity to the subject, as if the woman is aware of their presence and the viewer is involved in the experience. In Bedroom, on the other hand, the space between the viewer and the subject suggests a voyeuristic experience rather than a collective one.

In the year of his artistic debut, 1885, Hammershøi was heavily influenced by the work of James Whistler, specifically ‘The Ten O’clock Lectures’, where Whistler muses on the creation of modern art: that nature should not be taken at face value, as it is rarely correct and cannot produce a successful picture by itself. The painter must then reveal the secrets that are held within nature and refine them through the act of painting. This influence can be seen in Hammershøi’s great interest in highly curated and staged motifs that are far from reality whilst still based within it, for example, the unrealistic monotonic grey palette paired with the stylistically bare interior of Bedroom. The ideology from ‘The Ten O’clock Lectures’ is also reflected in Whistler’s work, which can be very closely compared to Bedroom. For example, the piece Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, 1871 depicts a female figure, the artist’s mother in a similarly monotonic, subdued, and grey-scale colour palette to Bedroom. The title also suggests the female figure as a form of still life, a study of the lines and composition, not a portrait.

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James Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, 1871, 144 cm x 162 cm, Oil on Canvas, 1871, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

This can also be seen in Hammershøi’s depiction of his sister in the Rückenfigur-like position. The fact that Hammershøi used his sister Anna as a model for this piece is not significant, as she is not given any defining features or evidence of her personal identity. In this way, Anna Hammershøi becomes another object in the motif’s still life; her individual identity is unnecessary for the motif to be understood. The influence of ‘The Ten O’clock Lectures’ on Hammershøi’s style can also be seen in a quotation in 1907 from the artist on his own work, “I absolutely think that a picture has the best effect in strictly colouristic regards the few colours there are in it”. This same ideology of the natural world needing to be changed to fit a certain aesthetic or motif in order to be artistically viable is also present in Bedroom.

As noted above, one other fundamental difference between Friedrich and Hammershøi’s interpretations is that the window in Bedroom is shown closed, creating a barrier between the female figure and the outside world as if she is locked in, confined to the interior space and excluded from the outside world. Where Friedrich uses this motif to highlight the excitement of the evolving world, Hammershøi depicts a partially blocked grey sky and thin, leafless trees, with no evidence of human activity. Instead of a woman looking out into a world of possibility and wonder, Bedroom suggests that the outside world is just as lifeless and dark as the interior world that the female figure inhabits. Although there is no evidence that Hammershøi painted this piece as a comment on Danish society, possible connotations can be interpreted from the scene. By depicting the female figure from behind, one can argue that she becomes the Rückenfigur, as she has no identity other than her gender, she symbolises the lives of women enclosed and isolated in the domestic sphere of the home, not allowed to leave.

Expectations of women during this time revolved predominantly around the next male generation. In order to fulfil an ideal female role, women were expected to maintain the domestic space, including looking after and raising children. Angela Holdsworth writes that women, in order to fulfil this role, had to be protected from the “polluting influences of the real world”. This idea of protection can be seen in Bedroom as the female figure looks out at the world but is not allowed into it, guarded from “polluting influences”. Women were seen as “angels of the house”, needing to be protected from a world which could harm or corrupt them in some way, bound to the trappings of the interior. There is a sense of immovability that Hammershøi creates through the dense and unstable surroundings of the house, seeming as if the woman is unable to move from her place looking out of the window, creating a static scene. Whilst unable to move out into the real world that she is isolated from, the female figure is stuck in a state of inward reflection and completely unreachable to the viewer. This motif was used during this time as a “symbolic confrontation between indoors and outdoors, which was an extension of the view of the day of the middle-class home as a bastion against the dirty and immoral world outside”, confirming the idea of women needing to be shielded from the pollution of the outside world.

Society’s expectations of women can also be seen in the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth century. Hammershøi was greatly influenced by artists from this period and would have been familiar with Pieter de Hooch and Jacobus Vrel. Hammershøi first visited The Netherlands in May 1887, confirming his influences from the Dutch Golden Age. The depiction of the middle-class woman in Pieter de Hooch’s Housewife Instructing her Maid is closely connected to the era’s expectations of women as the “effective and dutiful housewife”, depicted here carrying out her female responsibility of taking care of the house and of the chores.

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Pieter de Hooch, Housewife Instructing her Maid, 1644-83, 91.5 x 83 cm, Oil on Canvas, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark.

De Hooch focuses on the female role in a central composition holding and feeding her child, replicating two roles that women could fulfil during this period: a mother and housewife. When compared to Bedroom, this feminine role is less pronounced as the female figure in Hammershøi’s work is depicted in a moment of inward thought, transfixed by the world outside. The influence of Dutch art on Hammershøi’s Bedroom can also be seen when compared to Jacobus Vrel’s 1654 painting Woman at the Window.

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Jacobus Vrel, Woman at the Window, 1654, Oil on Oak Wood, 66.5 cm x 47.4 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Although on the surface the two paintings have the same basic structure, they connote contrasting emotions. Woman at the Window shows a woman completely immersed in life outside the house, her upper body leaning out of the window and to some extent out of view. This is a complete contrast to the use of the window as a barrier in Bedroom: shutting the female figure out from the world and creating a separation between the interior and exterior. In Woman at the Window, the window is used as an opening into a new setting and new experiences that allows the figure to experience this by leaning her upper body out of the window, allowing both exterior and interior to become one plane. Although Hammershøi’s main concern in Bedroom was the depiction and subversion of the motif, the painting draws connotations of the isolation of female life within the home at the time. This is heightened by the comparison of Bedroom to other positive depictions of the same motif structure.

The comparison of Hammershøi’s Bedroom not only highlights the differences between his interpretation of the motif compared with those of other artists, but also brings to light the similarities between them. One of the strongest similarities that is present in all the depictions of this motif is the lack of personal identity. Although the composition of this motif requires the female figure to be viewed from behind so as to give a sense of awe and excitement at the world outside, the lack of personal identity leaves possible connotations of the female figures becoming the Rückenfigur; however only Bedroom provides a picture of female isolation. In Woman at the Window, Jacobus Vrel uses light and saturated warm tones to create a positive and healthy view of a woman with her upper body completely immersed in life around her, leaving the viewer with a sense of happiness and comfort. On the other hand, the static nature of the female figure in Bedroom is by comparison almost ghost-like in appearance. This is largely due to Hammershøi’s painting technique and use of colour. Hammershøi used small, crossed brush strokes in a hatching motion to create blurred outlines, giving the sense of the objects as being almost there but not quite. Although he was very interested in and focused on the importance of line, his technique did not include strong sweeping strokes but instead very small impressions, leaving each line less of a border but more of a graduation between light and shadow. The contrast of the carefully curated geometry of the linear structure paired with the haze of brushwork adds a quality of immovable tension to the scene. In this way, the female figure becomes a slight haze, blurring her identity and form even further. The figure is left looking as if she is slightly hovering above the floor as she is depicted with her dress covering her feet, sinking and blending into the dark mass of the floor. The indefinite footing of the female figure brings a sense of detachment to the depiction, as if the woman is not completely there, thus heightening the sense of negativity and uneasiness in the scene. Dark, undefined floors also help to heighten the sense of distance between the viewer and the interior space. Detachment from a singular identity strengthens the figure being viewed as the Rückenfigur. She is not depicted with any defining features and is painted as a blurred haze, furthering the argument that the figure could be a painting of any woman at the time and that any woman could have understood the feeling of isolation and exclusion when looking at the painting.

As in Friedrich’s works, the Rückenfigur is often used to negate identity to allow the viewer to experience the landscape in the figure’s place. In this way, one can draw the conclusion that the female figure in Bedroom does not represent one woman, but instead invites all viewers to experience the life of a Danish woman in the late 1800s. However, there are critics who counter this point. Nina Amstutz argues that, due to the traditional dress of the figures depicted in works of this time, the figures can no longer be considered Rückenfigur today. This is due to the lack of accessibility that the figures have to contemporary viewers. As the female figure in Hammershøi’s Bedroom is dressed in a way that is typical of the late nineteenth century, contemporary women cannot put themselves in the woman’s perspective as the context of society has completely changed. In a similar way, Joseph Leo Koerner hypothesises that the view of the Rückenfigur is a “private inscription” of experience that the viewer can only oversee and not experience themselves, reflected in the partially blocked view out the window in Bedroom.

The female figure, if viewed as the Rückenfigur, changes the perception of the painting as a whole. Instead of the painting being viewed as a part of a popular motif, it can be viewed as a mirror on society. A society where women had no singular identity outside of their family and were locked out of the real world in order to be protected but were isolated in the process. The use of Rückenfigur in Hammershøi’s Bedroom reflects the experience of a woman isolated within the domestic space, referencing the inequality of the female role at this time, whilst also depicting an experience that the viewer cannot fully experience or understand. 

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