Pt II: Hammershøi – The Divine in the Ordinary


     Firstly, it is important to understand how Hammershøi arrived at the aesthetic he used. A unique aesthetic is not independent of other artistic movements, rather it is influenced by changes in thought and society.

     Hammershøi was born into a wealthy middle class family, with a successful merchant as a father. As a result, he was able to attend the Danish School of Fine Arts which gave him training in draughtsmanship and painting. However, it is evident when one looks at his work, that other factors contributed to Hammershøi’s unique aesthetic; although his work is academic in style, its colour palette and subject choice was unorthodox for his time. His use of pale colours, his ability to create atmospheres of light, silence and intimacy seem to point to something more than just what he learned at art school. Indeed, the aesthetic language he uses seems to be more similar to a view of the world shaped by Protestant beliefs. Hammershøi’s aesthetic seems to be an incarnation of Lutheran aestheticism taken to the extreme.

     It is important to define what this Lutheran aesthetic is before examining how it affects Hammershøi’s work. A religious aesthetic provides a visual representation of a theology. The aesthetic language of Lutheranism can be seen as embodying its beliefs. During the Protestant Baroque period we can see that there was an emphasis on the sanctity of ordinary life and work, something we shall see was later echoed by Hammershøi. This was quite different to the weighty aesthetic of the Catholic Baroque focus on Kabod: the glory of God, best seen in the art of Rubens [Fig.6]. One can see the sanctity of ordinary life in the novel attitude taken in Dutch painting during their Golden Age. An attitude of focus on depicting people working peacefully; those who were not traditionally found in the canon of Western art. These were neither saints nor classical figures. Despite this, there was a desire to elevate the status of these ordinary people, rendering them into beautiful figures – noble people with a sense of dignity in what they’re doing. There is no better manifestation of this idea than in The Milkmaid [Fig.7] by Johannes Vermeer. One can detect a sense of dignity about the work she is doing; the tranquillity with which the ‘milkmaid’ goes about her task creates a profoundly peaceful atmosphere. What is an apparently menial task like pouring milk is transformed into an act of quiet meditation, 1 Corinthians 10:31 says that one must glorify God in everything one does. Both Vermeer and Hammershøi lived in countries profoundly affected by Protestantism, and by its work ethic: hard work, discipline, and frugality. This can be seen to stem from the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura, the Bible being the supreme authority over the Church and daily life. In Dutch Golden Age art, an era whose art Hammershøi admired, there was an emphasis on the meaninglessness of life without God, taken from Ecclesiastes 1:2. Meaning is injected into Vermeer’s piece through the figure’s peaceful state of mind and focus on what she is doing, thus reflecting Corinthians’ emphasis on God-glorifying work, and an awareness of where meaning is to be found – loving God through work and meditation. Hammershøi, who greatly admired Vermeer, can be seen to reflect these Protestant ideals in his own work. Hammershøi strips back all ostentation in his work – his figures dwell in a cold and pale world. However, Copenhagen’s Nordic climate is only partly responsible for his pale colour palette; we see that his work is far paler than contemporary Danish art. I believe this can be explained by his love for Kierkegaard, who was himself “profoundly Lutheran”. Hammershøi can be seen as incarnating Kierkegaard’s version of Lutheran spirituality. I will expand on this in depth later.

Pt II: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 6: Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, 1609; 1628-1629, oil on canvas, (355.5cm x 493cm), Museo del Prado, Madrid

     Hammershøi’s aesthetic is also made unique through its use of a limited colour palette and a focus on space as opposed to people or narrative. It is important to see how this stems from both secular and Protestant tradition. Both Reformed and Lutheran Protestantism place a strong emphasis on the individual. Luther’s revelation was that the Christian faith was about the individual’s relationship with God, as opposed the corporate Church’s relationship with God. The combination of Luther’s emphasis on individualism and the secular growth of humanism, with its belief that “man is the measure of all things”, lead to increasingly secular subject matter in painting.  

Pt II: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 7: Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1657-1658, oil on canvas, (45cm x 41cm), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
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