Vilhelm Hammershoi paintings headline Sotheby’s Scandinavian auction in London

Sotheby’s Scandinavian Sale on Monday, 11 June 2012, features Vilhelm Hammershoi paintings. Four of the paintings depict Hammershøi’s home in Strandgade 30 in Copenhagen, which provided the backdrop for the artist’s most iconic and celebrated works. Together, the group is estimated to bring in excess of £1.45 million.

Ida Reading a Letter, painted in 1899 (66 by 59cm., 26 by 23¼in.), was among the first works painted by Hammershøi in the rooms of Strandgade 30, an address that was to play a critical role in the development of the painter’s singular aesthetic. The painter and his wife moved into the apartment in 1898 and remained there until 1909. His arrangement and rearrangement of the distinctive, sparsely furnished space, bare wooden floorboard, perpendicular wall mouldings, sentinel stoves and painted white doors quickly became the central motif of his work. The present work, estimated at £500,000-700,000, is painted in a silvery-grey palette and with an absence of sentimentality. These qualities draw a striking comparison with the oeuvre of James McNeill Whistler, the American artist who deeply influenced Hammershøi. Both artists distilled the painting of women in empty rooms to its very essence, the limited tonal range further tempering any narrative. In his subtle use of light, muted tones and subject, Hammershøi perhaps owes his greatest debt to the Dutch seventeenth-century master Johannes Vermeer and he would have seen Vermeer’s works first-hand on a trip to Holland in 1887. The composition is remarkably similar to Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter to the extent that it seems impossible Hammershøi did not have this work in mind: both women adopt the same unselfconscious pose, their heads tilted to read a letter; the hairstyle and clothes; the positioning of the table slightly obscuring the figure with an indirect light source flooding the scene. The rarefied light is the principal subject here, with nuances that betray the Danish setting.

Interior with Two Candles, painted in 1904 (67 by 54cm., 26½ by 21¼in.), also depicts a room in Strandgade 30 and comes to auction from a Danish Private Collection. The picture relates to Møntsamleren (The Coin Collector), now housed in the Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo. The very absence of physical human presence, alluded to by the burning candles, imbues the painting with an acutely haunting sense of lingering. It illustrates Hammershøi’s extraordinary ability to capture an ambience of timelessness and introspective solitude, his observation of the ethereal candlelight against the geometric forms of the apartment adding to the work’s powerful effect. The sense of seclusion and introspection is central to the tenets of Symbolism, of which Hammershøi is now regarded as a leading exponent. The oil on canvas is estimated at £400,000-600,000.

Depicting the artist’s beloved wife Ida – Hammershøi’s most enduring model and the inspiration for his most celebrated works – dressed in black seen only from behind, Ida in an Interior, also painted in 1904 at Strandgade, is evocatively poetic (37 by 27.5cm., 14½ by 11in.). Ida is portrayed with a pewter tray beside an empire washstand visible to the right of the composition. The room echoes with stillness and space, and while the subject of the painting is the woman, it is the architectural shapes and window beyond that attracts the viewer’s attention. The artist commented on what inspired him most in his subjects, and he described how the lines, “the architectonic structure of the painting” defined his chosen motifs, and then of course, the light. The interior appearance of Strandgade 30 was not incidental. Vilhelm and Ida had the eighteenth-century wall paneling and mouldings, and the doors and window frames, painted white before moving in. The artist used his home as a stage set to explore his fascination with the play of light over geometrical shapes. From a Danish Private Collection, the present work is estimated at £250,000-350,000.

Painted in 1900, the fourth work in the group showing the interior at Strandgade 30 is Ida Standing at a Desk (41 by 35cm., 16Q by 13¾ in.), estimated at £200,000-300,000. The painting captures Hammershøi’s wife in an intimate moment, absorbed by her domestic responsibilities, the enclosed space a retreat from modernity and the outside world.

Strandgade with Christians Kirke in the background (61 by 79cm., 24 by 31in.) sees the artist move beyond the interior of his apartment, outside and onto one end of Strandgade. Painted in 1907, the present work depicts Christians Kirke (Christian’s Church), a magnificent Rococo church. The immediate surroundings of Hammershøi’s home would have held great personal significance for him. His predilection for monumental buildings focused on palaces and churches which had a particularly strong, symbolical or national significance. Christians Kirke was originally built as a church for the large German community of the Christianshavn District of Copenhagen. The present work shows the church under restoration with scaffolding on the façade. It comes to the market from a Danish Private Collection and is estimated at £100,000-150,000.

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