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Art and Images in Psychiatry
August 2013

Interior. With Piano and Woman in Black (Strandgade 30): Vilhelm Hammershøi

Author Affiliations
  • 1Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(8):774-775. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.1999

I have a pupil who paints most oddly. I do not understand him, but believe he is going to be important and do not try to influence him.

Peder Severin Krøyer1(p14)

[Hammershøi’s] work is long and slow…it will offer plentiful reasons of what is important and essential in art.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 19051(p13)

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) was a Danish artist best known for his somber, haunting interior scenes.1,2 A master of understatement, his best works are small interiors, often devoid of people. When human beings do appear, they ordinarily have their backs turned to the viewer and are apparently self-absorbed. Hammershøi’s art transformed his apartment into a continuum of unsettling empty spaces where time seems suspended; his works are not still life paintings but are intended to convey a mood, often a melancholy stillness. He does so by limiting his palette to umber, sienna, brown, black, and white and by excluding warmer tones. Hammershøi’s works are not naturalistic but, instead, reflect a mental climate without vitality and seem to speak to the loneliness and isolation of the individual. Yet, if the viewer takes the time to attune his or her mood with the mood of the artist, to be become attuned to the artist’s poetic sensibility, there emerges, from Hammershøi’s use of light, a sense of quietude in his compositions. Still, Hammershøi’s constant subversion of the viewer’s expectations creates a sense of disquiet and causes the viewer to emotionally turn back into himself or herself.

Hammershøi and his wife, Ida Ilsed, sister of a fellow artist, moved into a 17th century house in the Christianshavn quarter of Copenhagen, Strandgade number 30, on September 15, 1898, and remained there for more than 10 years.1 It was here that he completed his most important interior paintings. Ida was his primary model, and it is she, with her back to the viewer, who appears in Interior. With Piano and Woman in Black (Strandgade 30). In this painting, the elements of the interior of their home are carefully arranged and rendered in muted colors. The foreground is empty as the viewer looks in to witness a woman, hair tied in a bun, in a long dress standing near a piano whose keyboard lid is open with music displayed. A partial view of a book case can be seen to the right. The 2 pictures on the wall before her break the symmetry of the composition and contribute to the unsettling feeling tone that the artist creates. Ida stands motionless like a post or pillar, apparently absorbed in her own thoughts. The stasis of the pictorial elements creates a deep stillness, a melancholic sense of unease, even alienation. In Sunbeams or Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams, the human figure is abandoned entirely to allow the artist to examine light as it enters a room. The murky windowpanes obscure the outside and focus attention on the interior. The door is closed with no handle on it. The streaming, penetrating play of light paints a light shadow of the windowpanes across the floor. The falling light seems both material and immaterial as it enters and inhabits the room, capturing motes of dust within it. Interior paintings make up fully one-third of Hammershøi’s output of 370 paintings.1

Interior. With Piano and Woman in Black (Strandgade 30), 1901. Oil on canvas, 63 × 52.5 cm. Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo credit: Pernille Klemp.

Sunbeams or Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams, 1900. Oil on canvas, 70 × 59 cm. Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo credit: Pernille Klemp.

Hammershøi began his education in drawing at 8 years of age, and at 15 years of age, he was enrolled as a student in the 5-year curriculum at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen. Feeling constrained by traditional art education, he concurrently enrolled at the progressive Free Study Schools during his last 2 years of study, with P. S. Krøyer as his teacher.3 Krøyer recognized his talent and defended the work of his very original pupil (epigraph).

Most striking and unsettling to viewers was the lack of narrative content in Hammershøi’s work. His interiors do not speak to the lives of their occupants but display a sense of studied emptiness. His approach is said to anticipate the isolated world created by Edward Hopper,4 whose canvases mirror the anguish of modern urban existence. Yet unlike Hammershøi’s paintings, Hopper’s work engages the viewer’s narrative imagination, as exemplified by the film director Alfred Hitchcock basing the Bates house in his film Psycho on Hopper’s House by the Railroad and emulating Hopper’s painting The City for his opening montage of the city of Phoenix, Arizona, in the film.

The French press referred to Hammershøi as the “Vermeer of the North.” Indeed, Hammershøi visited the Netherlands, and in the 1890s, he saw Johannes Vermeer’s work.5 Hammershøi’s use of light and his focus on domestic interior scenes are reminiscent of Vermeer,6 and it is believed that he might have modeled some of his interior scenes on Vermeer’s interiors. Yet Vermeer used bright colors, expensive pigments (such as lapis lazuli), and natural warm light with strongly lit interiors. Unlike Hammershøi, his domestic scenes invite the viewer to empathize with the subject.

However, it was James McNeill Whistler who most influenced Hammershøi. As a student, he admired Whistler, and in 1886, he painted several paintings of his own mother based on the composition of Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother.1,7 Like Whistler’s paintings, Hammershøi’s paintings may be viewed as arrangements.

Hammershøi was described by his contemporaries as nervous, hypersensitive, and taciturn.2 The art critic and his close friend Karl Madsen referred to him as “Denmark’s first neurasthenic painter.”1(p13) Neurasthenia is a diagnosis that was popularized in the United States in 1869. It was first reported in Scandinavia in the Norwegian medical journal Tidsskr Nor Laegeforen in 1876 and was later recognized throughout Scandinavia.8 Neurasthenia was defined as a physical (not a psychiatric) illness resulting from weakness of the nervous system and was associated with fatigue, dizziness, instability, mild anxiety, and depression. Neurasthenia was believed to be a response to the stresses of modern times; rest was prescribed as treatment. Neurasthenia has long been viewed by the lay public as a nervous condition (a case of nerves), one that involves both mental and physical symptoms. Neurasthenia remains a diagnostic category in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases, 10th Revision (code F48), in the Mental and Behavior Disorders section; however, it is not included in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM manuals. Recently, neurasthenia has been considered in discussions about the increasing prevalence of depression as a diagnosis.9 Understanding, treating, and preventing this illness and related illnesses will require better psychosocial and neurobiological explanations of physical and mental fatigability.10

Despite his proposed neurasthenia, Hammershøi remained productive throughout his life and traveled abroad with Ida until his final years. Whether or not he met the criteria for having neurasthenia, his taciturn nature and reclusiveness led others to suspect that he did. Finally, his emotionally unsettling interior paintings might provoke an initial feeling of mild neurasthenia in a viewer who struggles to engage his enigmatic art.

Section Editor: James C. Harris, MD
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Article Information

Corresponding Author: James C. Harris, MD, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1800 Orleans St, Baltimore, MD 21287 (jharri10@jhmi.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

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