oil on canvas
canvas 49.5 (h) x 46.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase with the assistance of Philippe Meyer 1996
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Michèle Bellot
A woman sits on a chair, close to us, alone in an almost empty room. Most unusually, we look at her from behind, with no indication of features nor facial expression. Light falls slowly into the room from a doorway or tall window at left, behind her, touching the wall softly. Hammershøi’s composition presents strong verticals, the axis of seated figure, chair and shadow on the wall contrasting with the horizontals of tabletop, chair rungs and skirting board. Such stark geometry is challenged by the curves of the woman’s neck, head and clothing, the scalloped dish and carved chairback. The palette is reduced to grey, white, black, brown, warmed by a dark red tablecloth and the palest flesh tones. But Hammershøi also plays with our perceptions of hard and soft, real and imagined. Hard porcelain materialises in white paint, while the painted white plaster or wooden skirting board is less defined, and immaterial light brightens a painted wall. The woman’s black skirt disappears as light plays across the stuff of her grey blouse.
We assume the sitter is the artist’s wife Ida, his favourite model. The two married in 1891. But who is she in essence? What is she doing or thinking? Is she resting from domestic toil, remembering, thinking of the future? There seems to be no class marker, as her blouse could be velvet or cotton, and she might be a wife or a servant. The only movement on the canvas is in the blouse, where creases in the sleeves and bodice and a slightly angled closure at the nape gently animate the surface. Overall there is an air of intimacy and mystery, even secrecy. Does the artist understand this woman, her thoughts and feelings? Can he communicate the unknowability of another person?
The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke admired Hammershøi’s painting. The artist ‘is not one of those of whom it is necessary to speak [of] quickly,’ he wrote in 1905, the year Rest was made. ‘His work is long and slow and at whatever moment one grasps it, it will always give ample opportunity to speak about what is important and essential in art.’1 Ideas about modern art after Impressionism spread across Europe, to Belgium and the Nordic countries in particular. Hammershøi in Copenhagen, like Khnopff in Brussels, combined radical portraits with non-threatening intimist interiors.
The Danish painter reinvented the rear view, an unusual pose in the millennia-old tradition of the portrait. Sitters were almost always portrayed frontally, or at an angle, or in profile. In the seventeenth century the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer depicted women from behind in domestic interiors, while early in the nineteenth century Caspar David Friedrich showed a man from behind as a symbolic figure in the landscape. Hammershøi’s rendering of a lone subject, usually his wife, mother or sister, is made unfamiliar and strange by the anonymity of an unseen face.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Letter to Alfred Bramsen, 10 November 1905, quoted in Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark and Mikael Wivel, Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1864–1916: Danish painter of solitude and light, New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation 1998, p. 191.