National Gallery: Work by Danish master now hangs out with Van Gogh’s Iris

To stand in front of Vilhelm Hammershoi’s Sunshine in the Drawing Room, a newly acquired painting at the National Gallery, is to feel austere.

The 58-by-67 centimetre canvas has the delicate shadows of Vermeer, the dominant greys of Whistler, and the dark ambiguity of Colville. It is, in a word, moody — unlike the curator standing next to it. Chief curator Paul Lang has an air of unimpeachable happiness most of the time, but today he’s jubilant.

Lang stands in room C215, where the Hammershoi shares space with two of the gallery’s stone-cold masterpieces, Van Gogh’s Iris and Klimt’s Hope I. Lang says the Hammershoi, painted in 1910, “is a missing link in this room, which reflects what is happening around 1900.”

Sunshine in the Drawing Room hangs in the corner, and there its two stories intersect, one about the painting’s acquisition and the other about the artist’s resurrection.

Hammershoi was born in Copenhagen in 1864 and, like his idol Vermeer 200-odd years before, he was reasonably successful during his lifetime. After he died in 1916 he was, again like Vermeer, shuffled to the margins of public awareness. Both artists have since regained public stature, though not equally. There’s comparatively little written about Hammershoi; a cursory search on amazon.ca brings 98 hits, and only a few of those are books. A search for “vermeer” rings up more than 36,000 hits.

Vermeer was imprinted on the pop culture consciousness by the 1999 novel and subsequent movie Girl With a Pearl Earring. Hollywood hasn’t given Hammershoi a starring role, though the interior scenes in the 2015 Oscar-winning movie The Danish Girl were modelled on his paintings — with, as New Yorker movie critic Anthony Lane put it, “aching fidelity.” Paul Lang says of the artist, “It’s like he’s giving a room feelings.”

There’s a 2008 BBC documentary about him, made by, as curious as it may seem, the Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin, who spoke of the “mystery” of this “surprisingly uncelebrated man.” He followed the artist’s story through locations seen in the paintings, from the British Museum to that drawing room in Copenhagen, the same one now seen in Ottawa.

The Canadian painting is Hammershoi’s fourth and final of the scene — Lang hopes to bring them all together for the first time, as part of the gallery’s Masterpiece in Focus series — and it is the emptiest, with walls almost bare and furniture sparsely employed, all the finishings gradually stripped out by the artist. It was painted in 1910, the only one of the four completed after the family had moved out of the house.

Vilhelm Hammershøi
Sunshine in the Drawing Room (Solskin i dagligstuen), 1910
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Three years later he etched a deep if subtle legacy in Canadian art, when his paintings in an exhibition of contemporary work from Scandinavia, held in Buffalo after an acclaimed stop in New York City, “had a lasting impact on members of the Group of Seven,” says a release from the gallery.

Hammershoi died in 1916, and the indignity of obscurification began. A collector donated 28 of the artist’s paintings to the Danish National Gallery, but the gallery later returned all of them to the collector “when Hammershoi went out of fashion in the 1930s,” Palin says. “Recently they tried to get them back but it was too late, most . . . had been sold. With Hammershoi work now fetching half a million dollars (in 2008), they must be kicking themselves.”

No doubt, Lang says, “Now all major museums are looking for him.”

Hammershoi’s climb back up the slippery pole of art world tastes got a big boost from MOMA curator Kurt Varnedoe in the 1980s. More people started to pay attention to the artist — a reserved man who had little interest in pleasing the latest trends. He was painting interiors as abstraction ascended but, like the viral honey badger, “he doesn’t care,” Lang says. “He doesn’t want to be fashionable.”

Yet Lang, gesturing to the painting on the gallery wall and looking at it with wonder though he sees it perhaps every day or so, explains how it is “nearly at the border of abstraction,” with its odd perspective that fills nearly two thirds of the scene with dark, empty ceiling and floor. A women sits at a desk to the right, a supporting actor to the floor-and-ceiling star turn. She wears a black dress and, typically, is seen from the back, her face turned away, unidentifiable and unreadable. When the painting was finished it was somehow “from yesterday and from tomorrow, but not from today,” Lang says.

He and Anabelle Kienle-Ponka, the associate curator for European and American art, searched for a Hammershoi for six years. There was only one in Canada, at the AGO. Then, last November, they heard of one coming up for sale in New York City.

“Anabelle and I, 15 minutes before the opening we were in front of the door waiting, in the rain,” he says.

Such an evocative scene, as is the painting the intrepid curators pursued. The titular sunshine is muted, and the drawing room seems swollen with a dusky silence, a quietude that can hardly be comprehended in today’s connected world.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.

  • Michael Schreier

    Thank you for such an empathetic and clear reflection….I saw this exhibition in Toronto earlier this year and have the catalogue…a wonderful understressed artist offering a great deal to consider with reference to current social climate…your insight is well appreciated and I am excited that the National Gallery was able to acquire this master work.