Vilhelm Hammershoi
Biography and Paintings of Danish Genre-Painter.

Pin it

Interior with the Back of a Woman
(1904) Randers Kunstmuseum.
For other expressive "interiors" like
those produced by Hammershoi, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Vilhelm Hammershoi, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century

Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916)

Danish painter, Vilhelm Hammershoi is best known for his genre-painting consisting of quiet interiors, in muted colours/tones of blue and grey, containing isolated figures that have their back turned to the viewer. His rooms are sparsely furnished, suggesting a quiet melancholy or introspection. Although Hammershoi is considered to be an exponent of Symbolism, there is equal argument for suggesting that he was simply interested in portraying beauty in the ordinary, rather than making any complex statements. His art has a mystical, timeless quality about it, but it also enables the viewer to take a nostalgic journey into the past. Influenced by the composition and tonal variations of Dutch Realist genre painting from the likes of Jan Vermeer, and also by the American Post-Impressionist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Hammershoi's most familiar subject is his wife, painted in their tidy apartment. He also produced a number of landscapes, but these are considered of less importance. His reputation is undergoing something of a revival, and he is now considered to be one of the best genre painters from Scandinavia. See also: Best Impressionist Paintings.

For a list of painters like
Hammershoi, see:
Modern Artists.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest still life art, see:
Best Still Life Painters.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.

For a list of the best examples of
Fine Art Painting, by the
world's top artists, see:
Oil Painting.

For an explanation of the
main aesthetic issues, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.

Artistic Training

Hammershoi was born in Copenhagen in 1864. He studied drawing at an early age with the artist and philosopher Niels Christian Kierkegaard (1806-82). He also studied painting with Peter Vilhelm Carl Kyhn, (1819-1903), the Danish romantic landscape artist, who was one of the founding members of The Danish Etchers Union (Den danske Radeerforening). Kyhn encouraged his students to portray naturalism in landscape and to anchor study with the use of life-models and plein-air painting. Hammershoi progressed to studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Between 1883 and 1885, he studied at the Independent Study School, under the tutorship of Norwegian-Danish painter P.S. Kroyer (1851-1909). Kroyer was the unofficial leader of the Skagen Painters, those artists who worked in Skagen, Denmark during the final years of the 19th century. See also: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting.


Interior Scenes

Hammershoi was influenced as a young artist by the works of American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). Whistler was known for his post-Impressionism - harmonious paintings in subdued colours, which were highly nostalgic and melancholic. Hammershoi's early works caused some controversy because of his limited use of palette, which led to a rejection of his painting Bedroom by the Academy in 1890. The rejection annoyed other contemporary artists, and was a catalyst for the creation of the Independent Exhibition, the following year. In 1891 Hammershoi married Ida Ilsted, who became the model for his most famous compositions. In all, he painted over 60 paintings of the interior of the house they shared together, many of which contained the figure of Ida with her back turned to the viewer or absorbed in a task. Examples include Interior (1899, Tate Gallery, London), Interior with a Girl at the Clavier (1901, private collection) and Interior with the Back of a Woman (c.1902, Randers Kunstmuseum, Denmark).

Influence of Dutch Realism

Hammershoi drew inspiration from the 17th century Dutch Realist painters of interiors, including Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-78), Jan Steen (1626–79), Adriaen van Ostade (1610–85) and Pieter de Hooch (1629-84). Like de Hooch, Hammershoi was obsessed with empty rooms and light effects shining through windows. He enjoyed using doors, part opened to suggest a space beyond which the viewer was not privy to. The suggestiveness of this linked Hammershoi to the international Symbolist movement. Living with his wife as a near recluse, he completed only a few pictures a year. Many of these works were of his apartment, which he treated as one large still life study. He was a slow worker, meticulous with details, tones and light effects. The stillness in his paintings depicting a woman reading a letter are reminiscent of Woman Reading a Letter (1662, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) by Jan Vermeer. At the same time, the formulated palette of greys, blues and black are reminiscent of Whistler's Nocturnes. What sets Hammershoi's interiors apart from other traditional artists is that when they painted a woman alone, the scene was narrative. The woman was depicted as being absorbed in thinking about something. With Hammershoi, there is no such narrative; he aims simply to depict the effect of light on the room and the figure within it. His painting has no spiritual or transcendental significance.

Note: For other examples of the 'interiors' style of genre-painting, see: Interior (1896, Musee d'Orsay, Paris) by the Copenhagen artist Peter Vilhelm Ilsted (1861-1933), and A Lady in an Interior (1900-10, private collection) by the Danish painter Carl Vilhelm Holsoe (1863-1935).


Hammershoi was also an exponent of landscape painting, and pictures of buildings and deserted streets, notably of misty winter mornings in London. These are empty of any human presence, in what would in reality have been busy streets. One of Hammershoi's best known landscapes is Landscape from Lejre (1905, National Museum Stockholm). It was painted soon after receiving acclaim for his work from Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919). Landscape from Lejre displays an empty landscape, portrayed in soft bright colours: a green field takes up one third of the picture, and fluffy clouds and sky the remainder. The viewer is invited to enter the landscape for quiet, reflection. It is the same invitation for contemplation that applies to his interior genre paintings. Curiously, according to the German artist Emil Nolde, Hammershoi was as reserved in life as he was in his art. He died in 1916.

Legacy and Reputation

Although popular in his day, Hammershoi quickly became seen as old fashioned - his monotone palette, being replaced by the vibrant modernist movements like the Fauvists and Der Blaue Reiter. After his death, his work was largely forgotten, until a revival in the mid 1980s. In 2008 an important retrospective was held at the Royal Academy in London. Today, Giclee prints of the artist's paintings, particularly his interior scenes - many of which hang in the world's best art museums - are highly popular on poster art sites.

• For more biographies, see: Famous Painters.
• For details of major art periods/movements, see: History of Art.
• For more information about modern art, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.