Pt III: Hammershøi – The Divine in the Ordinary


     Although Hammershøi’s paintings have been described as both spiritual and transcendental, they should more precisely be seen as displaying a Lutheran spirituality and transcendence. This can be seen through the use of light. The Lutheranism found in the work of Hammershøi can be seen in the way that his paintings are aesthetically austere and replaced by a focus on pale sunlight.

     At a superficial level, the influence of the philosophy of naturalism, the belief that all that exists is physical, can be seen in the bare interiors that Hammershøi presents to the viewer. There is an absence of anything mythical or overtly religious. Decades earlier, the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) paved the way for a realistic way of painting; getting rid of narrative and subject matter and solely focussing on what the artist could see with their own eyes. Famously, Courbet said he had “never seen an angel, so [he would] not paint one”. This naturalistic attitude towards depicting only what is visible is the approach one sees in Hammershøi’s work, filled with empty space and light.

Pt III: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 1: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Dust Motes Dancing in the Sun Beams, 1900, oil on canvas, (70cm x 59cm), Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen

     This attitude of documentary realism was further manifested in the work of Hammershøi’s French contemporaries Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and Claude Monet (1840-1926). These painters took an interest in capturing a photographic record of an ordinary scene. This attention to the surface level of things is noticeable in the documentary observation of light in Hammershøi’s work. Hammershøi owned a camera which makes sense when seeing the appearance of Dust Motes [Fig.1]. The frozen quality of the light streaming through the glass and the grey colour palette would suggest an interest in photography. However, what is visible in the image is only a part of what is being depicted in the work. Courbet’s non-existent angel has been replaced by light. Hammershøi has taken Courbet’s attitude of observation and fills it with an invisible spirituality. He creates a place in which the mental space – and not the physical space – matters. Although one can see this art as steeped in the tradition of realism, it becomes its own indigenous genre once seen through the lens of Hammershøi’s intellectual interests and environment. For, unlike the secular France of Courbet and of the previously mentioned impressionists and realists, one must not forget Hammershøi’s environment: Denmark a Lutheran country. The two factors of realism and photography can be seen as instrumental in Hammershøi’s creation of a unique aesthetic, with a focus on light and its relationship with the visible world but, importantly, the spiritual world too.

Pt III: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 2: Kristian Zahrtmann, The Mysterious Wedding in Pistoia, 1894, oil on canvas, (123.5cm x 146.8cm), Bornholm Art Museum, Gudhjem, Denmark

     Instead of using the realist tradition of Courbet to promote naturalism, Hammershøi’s paintings exploit the apparent lack of subject matter in order to invite the viewer to reflect. It is possible to see this in Hammershøi’s belief that “one experiences oneself through painting.” In other words, we can see his worldview and what has affected his thought as an artist through his art. Kierkegaard’s influence on Hammershøi’s paintings can be seen in their spartan simplicity.

     Hammershøi’s interest in Kierkegaard injects his art with meaning. Kierkegaard stressed the importance of faith above intellect. To him, the emotional sphere of the Christian faith had been lost; accusing churchgoers of being mere automatons, attending Church without emotion. To Kierkegaard, there needed to be an absolute surrender of the will to God – a “leap of faith”. Martin Luther, whom Kierkegaard admired, wrote that the Christian ought to surrender freely to the unknown goodness of God. Sola fide, he wrote; “man is saved by faith alone”. This sense of the unknown and the mysterious is certainly very present in Hammershøi’s work. Both the theology of Kierkegaard and of Luther can be seen as contradictory to the previously mentioned naturalist worldview of Courbet, yet its simplicity of faith and removal of religiosity complements the realist aesthetic used by Hammershøi. Dust Motes is an aesthetically simple piece, stripped back to the bare skeletal frame of the room. All is on display, yet a sense of mystery still remains.

     When looking at Dust Motes the eye is drawn to the window, it is then pushed back into the room by the rays of sunlight, upon realising there is little for the eye to see outside. The subject of this piece is the light. Similar to Lutheran churches that are full of light, from their lack of stained glass, Hammershøi depicts the cold Nordic light that he saw in Copenhagen, infiltrating the room. In this sense, his work is similar to Lutheran churches, in its emphasis placed on light. The Lutheran rejection of stained glass meant that churches were full of sunlight. Although the interiors were warmer than Hammershøi’s pale rooms, a similarity can be drawn between the large, clear Lutheran windows and Hammershøi’s interest in depicting that same light, through the clear windows of his own home in Strandgade 30, Copenhagen.

Pt III: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 3: J.F. Willumsen, Sun over Southern Mountains, 1902, oil on canvas, (209cm x 208cm), Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm, Sweden

    Hammershøi lived in a flat on the third floor and we can see, by comparing the tiles through the window with images of his flat, that Dust Motes faces south-west. The light comes diagonally from the top right of the painting, over the roof. This therefore means we are looking at morning sunlight streaming in through the window. What is beyond the window, in this painting, is without significance. The focus is placed on the window and the light coming through.

    Kierkegaard wrote of artists preferring to paint in morning light because not everything is exposed, mystery is still present in the morning light. It is possible to see this as a Divine light coming to illuminate mystery. However, all this divine light highlights the mystery’s existence – it gives no answers. In placing such significance on the light, Hammershøi gives empty space solidity. The void is given importance through the way the light cuts so sharply through the gloom. Despite viewing the world in a similarly naturalist way to Courbet, Hammershøi gives spiritual depth to his work.

    The light can also be seen as reflecting the idea of ephemerality in Lutheranism. It streams through the window in Dust Motes only for a moment; the cloud formations will soon change. The idea of clouds and changing weather was also an important religious theme during the Dutch Golden Age that Hammershøi so admired, where it symbolised the fleeting nature of life. Isaiah 40:8 says that everything is fleeting except God’s word. Lutheranism places a great emphasis on the spoken word compared to physical things. The God of the Bible uses words; in Genesis, he speaks the universe into being and throughout the New Testament, the word is seen as paramount. John writes that “in the beginning was the Word”. The belief in the frailty of things compared to the power of the eternal Word resonates in the work of Hammershøi.

    In matters of faith, Kierkegaard was sceptical of trying to find answers through rational means. He argued that one must understand that Christianity cannot be understood. According to Kierkegaard, this was because God is irreconcilably different to humanity. Like the light in Dust Motes, it is different to humanity – this is made explicit through the lack of human presence. Light is pure and intangible, like Kierkegaard’s emphasis on God’s nature being different to humanity’s. In this context, an attitude of surrender is necessary when viewing the work – surrender in the sense that one ought not to try to find concrete meaning in the painting. Its simplicity makes it complex. The sun streams through the windows but does not provide enlightenment. Instead, Hammershøi uses the light as a catalyst for meditation.

     Differences between Hammershøi and his Danish contemporaries can mainly be seen in the use of colour, seeing light as having more importance than bright colours. It seems that Hammershøi decided to take a different path from Gauguin, Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec painting on the continent, artists who influenced Danish contemporaries of Hammershøi, as we shall see. By excluding colour and favouring empty space with no narrative, Hammershøi set himself apart from the post-impressionists of Europe, making him separate from other art movements. One can also say that his art is academic in its attention to detail and in its brushwork – again, different to art movements of the time.

     The previously mentioned French artists influenced the works of Hammershøi’s friends Kristian Zahrtmann [Fig.2] and J.F. Willumsen [Fig.3] in their enthusiasm for colour. It is therefore not just a cultural difference between French and Danish culture. This is only partly responsible. Both Zahrtmann and Willumsen favoured bright colours and narratives. Zahrtmann preferred painting scenes from history. Willumsen painted bright landscapes and figures, within a narrative. He was an admirer of Gauguin, thus it is possible to see his influence on Willumsen. In the works of Gauguin and Willumsen we can see the early expressionist idea of art needing to be sincere to the artist’s state of mind, rather than true to the outside world. Rather than painting colours true to nature, Gauguin wrote that art should be an abstraction. In Willumsen’s art one sees the world the way the artist does. The same is true with Hammershøi’s paintings, in a very different way. He presents a reflection of himself. However, in contrast to the early expressionists, Hammershøi painted his world in a realist manner, showing his reflections on the world with muted colours, aiming to capture exactly what he saw with crisp precision. Colour was important to Hammershøi in that he chose his colours with precision, when examining Dust Motes, one sees a range of greys, with purple, blue and yellow hues. Although it is true to say he painted in a realist manner, like the early expressionists, he does not show the world as it is. We know that Hammershøi lived near the bustling docklands in Copenhagen. Knowing this, we can deduce that Hammershøi’s depiction of life is from his perspective; it is what he would like the world to be like. Hammershøi was a very quiet and private man. Perhaps his paintings show the world that he would like to exist in. An environment of light and silence separate from the noise of the rapidly modernising world outside.

     Despite Danes being immersed in a Lutheran culture, from church architecture to people’s ways of thinking being influenced, Willumsen and Zarhtmann demonstrate there was a range of art being produced. It demonstrates that many were not interested in a Lutheran aesthetic, despite being surrounded by it. Perhaps it demonstrates a reaction against it. Hammershøi reacts against it in the opposite manner, by augmenting the simplicity and draining the saturation of colours.

     Naturally, it is possible to see similarities between Hammershøi and other contemporaries. There was a trend for painting interiors during the 1880s. Hammershøi was part of the ‘The Free Exhibition’ movement, a group of artists his brother Svend, his brother-in-law Peter Ilsted and Carl Holsoe. Although Hammershøi would have had regular interaction with them and the group’s art is similar in style, one can detect a crispness and a stripping back of ornament in Vilhelm’s work that does set him apart. Despite, their similarity in aesthetic, Hammershøi’s work has an absence of human presence. When figures are present, their backs are turned, or they are deep in thought, severed from the outside world. Hammershøi uses light in a unique way to create a link between the interior and exterior – he places so much importance on it that it becomes the protagonist of each scene. As we shall see, Lutheran spirituality can be seen in this, in the importance placed on light and its power.   

     The light in Dust Motes illuminates the inside world but the exterior is hazy. Hammershøi illuminates the slanted floor, giving the impression that we are in the room, as the space continues towards the viewer, making us the active participants in the scene. Hammershøi makes us the missing figure in the room. In the context of Lutheran spirituality, this lack of human action in the painting provokes questions about freewill. The light is the active agent in many of Hammershøi’s works. Kierkegaard believed that the Lutheran Church had become emptied of passion or love for God. He believed that Lutheranism had been “integrated into the bourgeois order”. Instead, Kierkegaard advocated for a “surrender” to the “unknown goodness of God.” We do not know to what extent Hammershøi was consciously influenced by Kierkegaard, but we do know that he had seven of Kierkegaard’s works, including Either/Or, and that his paintings are an uncanny incarnation of Kierkegaardian theology. Kierkegaard described prayer as “a silent surrendering of everything to God.” The light in Dust Motes breaks through into an empty and silent room. The only person to see this is the viewer. All has been stripped bare. Dust Motes can be seen as an illustration of Kierkegaard’s prayer: a silent surrender to the divine light. Viewing this through a Kierkegaardian spirituality could be seen as Hammershøi asking the audience to assess their life. In this context, the words of Christ in John 20:22, “Receive the Holy Spirit” resonate particularly. However, Christ emphasises that this is a choice. He says that he “stand[s] at the door, and knock[s].” He continues to say that “if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come into him.” What we see in Dust Motes is exactly that: the light fills the void and the result is a peaceful atmosphere. Galatians 5:22-25 says that the fruit of God’s spirit is peace.

     The light in Interior with Artificial Light [Fig.4] is miniscule compared to the darkness of the canvas – it shows Hammershøi’s interest in the way light appears differently varying spaces. The candles burn upright, not even interrupted by the slightest breeze. As John Berger writes, “original paintings are silent.” That is to say the unreproduced, physical work of art makes no noise. Hammershøi demonstrates this supremely; like Vermeer, he exploits the qualities of paint and harnesses them for his own use – namely, the silence of the canvas is exaggerated through its subject matter. Berger continues to write:

     “This has the effect of closing the distance in time between painting the picture and one’s own act of looking at it.”

     Therefore, the painting becomes contemporary yet timeless since it is being viewed in the present. This in itself may be seen as spiritual; the painting is made transcendent. This is also the case through the lack of context; the darkness brings it out from the date it was painted and makes it timeless. There is no fashion or narrative to hint at a specific date. Thus, this is truly an artwork that is outside of time.

Pt III: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 4: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior. Artificial Light, 1909, oil on canvas, (60cm x 82.8cm), Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

     A relationship can be made between Interior with Artificial Light and Christ’s analogy in Matthew 5:14–15 of not leaving a light under a basket. Instead, one must place it on a stand to give light to the house. Christ is saying that the good news he brings should be shared, in the same way that a candle should be used to light up as much as possible. In Interior with Artificial Light, the two subjects are the light and the darkness. Although one cannot verify the link between the piece and the parable, it is nevertheless interesting to see these themes being subtly hinted at, perhaps unconsciously. Moreover, this work can be seen as meditative in its creative process. When one thinks of the artist sitting for many hours in a dark room with two candles as the only light source, a sense of slowness and peace is brought to the painting. When we think of Hammershøi’s own words that “one experiences oneself through painting,” it is striking to see this work’s subject matter are but two flickering candles.

     In Dust Motes, Hammershøi plays with the change between “light and dark, transparency and opacity.” He gives definition to the rays of sun, using a very pale blue wash to define dust in the rays. He contrasts this with the darker purple wash used on the door, giving definition to certain areas of the light. The rays become more transparent when closer to the floor. It is unlikely this carries spiritual meaning; Hammershøi is simply aiming to capture a fleeting moment in a photographic manner, remaining faithful to what is in front of him. Yet, in doing this he gives his work complexity, forcing the viewer to focus on what is being depicted.

     Hammershøi depicts purity in this piece; he was quoted saying that rooms are better without people. It is true to say that a figure would look out of place in Dust Motes. Hammershøi seems to create a small world within this piece; it is an impersonal, universal room, perhaps aimed for an Everyman – an ordinary human being. Indeed, when one looks at populated works, they are people wearing ordinary clothes, doing seemingly ordinary things. However, the gentle light in all his work seems to suggest peace in this ordinariness. It suggests that there is sanctity to be found in these people’s lives. Like Vermeer, Hammershøi gives dignity to the Everyman – something distinctly Lutheran. Philippians 4:7 talks of God’s peace surpassing all understanding. A similar feeling is present in Hammershøi’s art; the light gives a mysteriously peaceful atmosphere.

     The unique moment captured in Dust Motes would never happen again, yet it has been captured. His work depicts moments captured, like photography, Hammershøi shows moments and gives them importance. Like his love for postcards of backyards and banal scenes, Hammershøi seeks to give beauty to what is overlooked by society. He captures fleeting moments that will never happen again. This eye for finding beauty in the ordinary and humble is clearly affected by the Denmark’s long Protestant history. 

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Art, Hammershøi: The Divine in the Ordinary, Religion

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