Pt IV: Hammershøi – The Divine in the Ordinary


     In order to understand the Lutheran impact of silence on Hammershøi’s work, we must turn our eyes to the Protestant theologian Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) who developed the idea of Pietism in Germany. This would become an important phenomenon in the development of Danish Lutheran spirituality, when it spread in Denmark in the eighteenth century. Spener wrote that Christian faith was not seen in knowledge but rather in pious acts. His ideas were seen as one of the most important developments in Protestant theology in the time after Luther. Spener believed that sermons should encourage changes in the heart and the ‘fruits of faith’ in their audience. The faithful Christian receives the Holy Spirit and with that the Spirit’s fruit. Galatians 5:22-25 defines the fruit as patience, faithfulness and peace. The qualities of patience and faithfulness are suggested in Rest [Fig.1] where the figure seems peaceful, despite her face being turned. In The Coin Collector [Fig.2] we also sense peace in the atmosphere. Much like Vermeer’s milkmaid, the figure is focussing on a task with silent precision; still and at peace. Hammershøi’s work reflects the Pietist way of life. Spener’s movement was one that encouraged the spiritual life of the individual.

Pt IV: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 2: Vilhelm Hammershøi, The Coin Collector, 1904, oil on canvas, (89cm x 70cm), National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo

     The Pietists spoke of what they saw as a dead, cold orthodoxy in the Danish state Church. Speaking of a separation between head and heart, they claimed that the emotional life of the Christian was more important than what one believed. Like Kierkegaard, the influential theologian N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872) accused the State Church of being spiritually dead. Instead, he asked for a revival of the Martin Luther spirit: an active relationship with God. This would take place through prayer and personal Bible study. Kierkegaard saw prayer as having immense power; for him prayer was the only thing that could “move mountains and the world itself.” In this light, the emphasis on meditation and the intangible in Hammershøi’s works can be seen as a depiction of the importance of prayer, all else is stripped bare apart from the invisible life. Grundtvig saw this as being more important than attending church. Grundtvig asked:

      “Wherefore is the word of the Lord disappeared from out of His house?”

Pt IV: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 3: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior, Woman at the High Window, 1913, oil on canvas, (64.5cm x 52cm), Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen

     Grundtvig believed that Danes were losing touch with God by attending Church for tradition’s sake. For the first eight years of Hammershøi’s life, Grundtvig was still alive, his legacy remained after his death, influencing the Danish Church for the rest of Hammershøi’s life. Hammershøi’s paintings depict light in grey places. Much like what Kierkegaard and Grundtvig’s yearning for a rekindling of passion in the Church, we see hope in the light illuminating the rooms and studious figures in Hammershøi’s world. However, the solitude in his paintings associates him more with Kierkegaard’s idea of the Christian faith being one based upon solitude. This differs from Grundtvig’s emphasis on the Christian growing through communication. This idea of the Christian being alone once again demonstrates an affinity to a Kierkegaardian outlook. It is perhaps Grundtvig’s emphasis on communication that influenced the Danish Church in the later nineteenth century that Hammershøi may be reacting against for it is precisely the opposite of what one sees in his work: a lack of verbal communication; silence. Despite Grundtvig’s influence on the Danish church and Pietism being strong in Copenhagen, it remained a demure version of Pietism.

Pt IV: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 4: Caspar David Friedrich, Woman at the Window, 1822, oil on canvas, (73cm x 44cm), Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

     It may be argued that Hammershøi was steeped in a Christian tradition of art. We know that Hammershøi admired the art of the medieval Roman Catholic artists, Fra Angelico and Giotto, whose works incarnate a weightlessness that inspired Hammershøi. It could also be argued that the silence and tranquillity in the works by these two artists can be seen in Hammershøi’s work. The influence that a Protestant state had on aesthetics can be seen in the work of the Catholic Vermeer through his focus on ordinary life and silence.

     Finally, the art of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) can be seen as an influence on Hammershøi’s relationship with silence. Friedrich was a Pietist Lutheran and was friends with the nineteenth century German preacher Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten (1758-1818), who was a patron of Friedrich’s work. Kosegarten had an important impact on the Lutheran church with his emphasis on a simple faith. His emphasis was on the importance of a personal experience and relationship with God. The silent solitude in Hammershøi’s paintings can be seen to derive from the tenets of Friedrich’s Pietist faith.

     Hammershøi was influenced by Friedrich’s work; he based his woman at a window painting [Fig.3] on Friedrich’s. For example, the Hammershøi’s Woman at the high window [Fig.4]. Friedrich believed that windows offer a view on the outside world but create a barrier from it. This idea of a separation between interior and exterior can be seen in Dust Motes [Fig.5]. This will be expanded upon in the next chapter.

     Hammershøi also shows the silent facet of Lutheranism. Although Hammershøi’s pieces are not loud they show a unique attention to small details and demonstrate a focus on the inner being of people. Faces are rarely given importance; this means one has to rely on the figure’s environment to know them. For example, the coin collector’s face is hidden but one can tell he is peaceful and meditative from the gentle lighting.

Pt IV: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 5: Vilhelm Hammershøi, Dust Motes Dancing in the Sun Beams, 1900, oil on canvas, (70cm x 59cm), Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen

     As previously mentioned, Hammershøi lived near the docklands, so this silence and tranquillity can only be a yearning from the artist’s own imagination. In pigment form, he shows the viewer his state of mind. A mind saturated with the white light of Denmark, the writing of Kierkegaard and the nominal Lutheran spirituality of his contemporary Denmark.

     As well as living in a noisy area, Hammershøi painted at the turn of the 19th century. During this time, Europe was rapidly modernising and was on the road to the First World War, where the world would change irreparably. In the light of this, Hammershøi’s paintings are even more unique in their message. In 1893, the Norwegian Edvard Munch (1863-1944) had painted The Scream, a symbol of alienation and anxiety. Seven years later, the first year of a new century, Hammershøi painted Dust Motes. Hammershøi seems to be calling for a different attitude to alienation and panic. He is calling people to dwell in the frozen present. Every one of his paintings gives the impression of stopped time. This may explain why he took such an interest in aspects that are taken no notice of by the ever faster moving world. This is supported by Hammershøi’s dislike for Impressionism that aimed to depict the modern and changing world. Despite being similar in depicting a fleeting world Hammershøi does the opposite of many impressionist paintings; the noisy harbour near his flat has been muted and instead we find that time has stopped in his paintings. They are undisturbed by what is going on outside. There is a separation from the real world and the spiritual world of Hammershøi’s interiors. All that is allowed in is a pure white light illuminating the gloom. The silence is emphasised through the lack of foreground in Dust Motes. It gives the impression of a void that it is not inhabited.

     When comparing these interiors with those by the Swedish contemporary Carl Larsson (1853-1919) [Fig.6], the bright colours, the amount of furniture and the lack of negative space gives a sense of life. Despite both artists painting tranquil scenes, Larsson’s work does not appear silent – Hammershøi’s interiors do; the figures do not seem connected to the outside world.

Pt IV: Hammershøi - The Divine in the Ordinary
Fig 6: Carl Larsson, Esbjorn doing his Homework, 1912, oil on canvas, (74cm x 68cm), Private Collection
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