facebook pixel
Photo: Ole Akhøj

Wilhelm Hammershoi

'From the British Museum. Winter'


It is not to be seen if one does not know it. Behind the fog on the far left hides an impressive building. Namely, the entrance to the British Museum with its huge columns. A landmark in London that has been painted and photographed thousands of times.

But why has the artist banished the museum's famous pillar entrance to a barely visible background?

Here, one of the museum's experts, Liza Kaaring, gives an insight into the enigmatic painting From the British Museum by Vilhelm Hammershøi. One of the most famous Danish painters ever.

Why is this painting so remarkable?

Hammershøi is first and foremost something very special. His fame has reached beyond the country's borders than any other Danish artist has achieved. In addition, he maintained a particularly distinctive style throughout his career.

The painting shows many of the traits he has become known for. We have the muted colors and the enigmatic mood. We have the silence - or the absence of action.

At the same time, the painting also testifies to his international success, which is quite unusual in Danish art history.

Hammershøi was in England six times during his life. An atypical place to find inspiration, since most Danish artists went to Italy or France. It was because his great role model, the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, lived in London.

But here in 1905-6, Hammershøi had been taken to London to investigate the possibilities of arranging an exhibition of his works. Fortunately, it succeeded. He had a big fan in London: the pianist Leonard Borwick.

On the back of the canvas, Hammershøi has written that he painted the picture for Borwick: "LB from VH in memory of happy times in London 1906."

The following year, Borwick arranged an exhibition of 19 of Hammershøi's works in London. It was announced with the headline "A new master".

Video: Watch curator Liza Kaaring talk about Hammershøi's painting.
What did Vilhelm Hammershøi want with the artwork?

It has clearly preoccupied him that the three parts of the building shift between each other, as they do here. That way, he has been able to geek out with lines and rhythm.

But really, the painting asks more questions than it provides answers. It is typically Hammershøi.

A more traditional painter would have placed himself in front of the central facade of the building. But Hammershøi has chosen an angle where you see the museum a little backwards from the side.

Why would he reproduce the monumental building from an oblique angle? So that one can hardly recognize it and it appears foreign?

And why does the building seem so incredibly closed? We can not look in through the dark windows, and the fence in front blocks the way to the museum. Despite its small size, the small elusive tree also contributes to the experience that access is blocked.

Closure is a general theme at Hammershøi. Like his back-turned women, as many know. It creates both mystery and distance.

But for Hammershøi, it has probably also been an attempt to evoke calm and undisturbedness. You can do that with a picture of a closed world where there is neither sight nor insight.


What does the painting tell us about the time it was created?

One can ask why there was a need for calm and undisturbedness here. It probably has something to do with the period. Cities grew and new technology developed. That meant everything started going faster. So he needed to hold on to some calm. In other words, a counter-reaction to time.



Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916)

Dated: 1906
Material: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 50,5 x 44,8 cm
Acquisition: Gift 1971 from Ny Carlsbergfondet


What characterizes Hammershøi's technique in painting?

At first glance, Hammershøi's paintings seem as if they are painted exclusively in gray tones. But if you go close, there are many more colors.

He also paints in several layers. In several places, the substrate shines through. It gives life to the surface and creates this soft, dreamy expression. An inner, undisturbed world.


Three important details according to Liza Kaaring:

1. That he has chosen to reproduce the building from an angle where it appears more elusive than in reality.

2. The windows in the front building. It looks like there is no life inside the building. Or we are shielded from seeing it. It emphasizes the closedness and corresponds to the windows in his interior paintings, where you can not look out.

3. The rhythmic rhythm of the three parts of the building. It is as if he is solving a mathematical problem. It gives peace and balance.

Please note that the work is not necessarily exhibited in the museum. 

Liza Kaaring er art historian and museum inspector on Fuglsang Kunstmuseum. Here she has special responsibility for the museum's research. Photo by Ingrid Riis.



Note: Danish only