By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Vilhelm Hammershøi was a mysterious Danish artist who made mysterious, haunting paintings. He preferred the restrained light of his native Copenhagen and let it infuse his images, many of which depict dwellings where he and his wife, Ida, lived around the turn of the 20th century. She was his favorite model, and he usually posed her facing away from his easel. The combined effects of his nearly neutral palette, sparsely furnished interiors and the solitary figure with her back to the viewer calls to mind Vermeer and Edward Hopper. Hammershøi’s oeuvre was largely forgotten after he died of cancer in 1916 at age 52 but was rediscovered in 1981 when Denmark’s Ordrupgaard museum mounted a retrospective. Fans include British set designers, who draw on his paintings when staging Ibsen plays, as well as comedian Michael Palin, who hosted a Hammershøi documentary in 2005.
Sotheby’s June 3 sale of Scandinavian art in London demonstrates how high Hammershøi’s reputation has climbed. The auction showcases five of his paintings, two of which have never before come to market. Double Portrait of the Artist and his Wife, Seen Through a Mirror (1911), estimated at £80,000–120,000 ($116,000–175,000), is particularly unusual; it contains some of his best-known motifs with a self-portrait. “On the one hand, he turns to face the viewer, but on the other hand, he doesn’t give much away,” says Claude Piening, senior director of 19th-century European paintings at Sotheby’s London. “It’s indicative of the nature of his character. He always held his cards close to the chest.”
Hammershøi’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1886), also estimated at £80,000–120,000, features two of his key influences: James Whistler, whose maternal portrait clearly shaped this image, and Hammershøi’s mother, who unwaveringly supported his artistic career. “We’re used to seeing his figures from behind, but this is very direct,” says Piening. “She really is someone. This is not a model posing. It’s a woman with a real identity.”
The remaining works, a rare face-forward oil sketch of Ida rendered circa 1890 and two landscapes from 1883, are each expected to fetch five-figure sums. The three were in a 2008 Hammershøi exhibit that appeared in London and Tokyo. The exhibit and the auction will have another thing in common: Their catalogues will be light on biographical detail. “It’s been very difficult to piece much together about his life,” says Piening. “In some way, he’s as mysterious as his pictures.”