Vilhelm Hammershøi – Interior with Young Woman from Behind (1904)

There is this sweet, pure moment after a great loss or a heartbreak when you just let go. You let go of the past, guilt and any regrets, let go of any preconceived ideas about your own identity, values or future, let go of any expectations from yourself, from others and from any gods you might worship. You are devoid of any emotions and thoughts, yet filled with an intense awareness and the most solemn silence. You just are, breathing life through every cell of your body. This moment may last for a few minutes, hours or even days, right until you start worrying about the future again. Worrying about how you’ll cope or agonizing over how to avert pain from ever knocking at your door again.

Few artists have captured that calm, solitary awareness better than Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. With his masterful rendition of light and his focus on depicting sparse interiors, Hammershøi’s approach to painting is reminiscent of the loneliness and stillness we encounter in the artworks of Edward Hopper.

Interior with Young Woman from Behind was completed while the artist was living on the Strandgade in Copenhagen (Denmark) with his wife, Ida Hammershøi. Ida is thought to appear in many of his paintings, usually with her back at us, always wearing a simple, black dress. This adds mystery to the painting, the viewer being unable to connect with the woman as she withdraws within herself. The muted color palette with grays, blues and browns suggests that life has been drained out of the room, a light sadness taking over instead.

Vilhelm Hammershøi – Interior with Young Woman from Behind
Vilhelm Hammershøi – Interior with Young Woman from Behind (1904), oil on canvas

In this particular interior painting, Hammershøi has Ida turning her head away from the objects in the room (the painting on the wall, the furniture and the tureen) and looking at the light being cast on the wall. The platter she holds under her arm acts more like an anchor, keeping her grounded while her body is leaning to the right. Hammershøi also strategically guides our gaze towards the light, with the corners of the frame and the decorative moulding on the wall placed diagonally and acting as arrows.

Pensive and contemplative, the woman seems to reject the minimal materialism around her, being drawn instead to the glacial light that kisses her nape before touching the wall in front of her. There are, of course, some biographical details that would suggest Ida was suffering from depression. However, for once, I think knowing more of the background story would detract from the solitude, stillness and deep, palpable silence that the painting so masterfully depicts. It would be far too easy to attribute her lonely portrayal to mental illness. Ida is merely a vessel, the mirror we are all looking into while projecting our reflections, our own light and shadows.

Bonus: Speaking of mirrors… If you’re in need of more tranquility, I highly recommend you listen to Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror) by Arvo Pärt.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. thank -you for all the work you went through to put this together. Your essay reflects the melancholy of the work, and the fact she has her back turned she become all the more detached in that sparse setting …thank you …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      I’m really glad you like it. I suppose it takes a certain mood to really enjoy this painting and all of Hammershoi’s works.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes the mood reminds me of WANDERED ABOVE A SEA OF FOG Painted in 1818 by Caspar David Friedrich, a certain sad detachment .

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Gabriela says:

          Interesting, I didn’t know the painting. The man has a pose of dominance, in my view. As if he’s assessing nature’s strength: can he overcome it?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. to me he is double hidden back to us ..hidden though he stands on a peak by the fog…

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Gabriela says:

              Ah, I see what you mean. There is a double mystery there at play. Not only the fact that he’s turned away from us, but also the uncertainty suggested by the fog. I’m liking this painting more and more…


  2. What an incredible essay. And yes the painting too says so much with the intrigue that it has woven within it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thank you, Rahul. I like how when you look at Hammershoi’s paintings you can pick and choose whatever you need in the moment, whether it’s a contemplative silence, an understanding of grief, the comfort of knowing you’re not alone in your solitude or sadness.

      By the way, I’ve started reading ‘The Lonely City’.


      1. Oh, that’s wonderful.

        And also the song that you recommended at the very end. Great choice. I suggest that if future write ups conjure musical connections in you, please do recommend it along side the essays.

        I have to revisit most of your recent posts with a more calmer and peaceful temperament to appreciate them more.

        Keep up the great work!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Gabriela says:

          Before I started the blog, that’s what actually crossed my mind: to pair each artwork with music (mostly instrumental). But I figured it would be too time consuming and of all the arts, music is the most subjective. It’s all about emotion there, you cannot rationalize it as you’d do with other arts or appreciate only some of its bits. You either like it or you don’t.

          I like the idea of mixing arts, since they all boil down to the same thing: appreciating beauty and searching for meaning. People that fail to see the similarities are either lacking curiosity (and open-mindedness?) or they’re lacking the opportunity.

          Maybe I’ll link to music in the comments! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          1. “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.” – E.M. Forster

            I too believe in the interconnections of art and reality . Art within art. Conscious with subconscious. Realty with dreams 🙂

            I will subscribe to your comments as well, if that is where you are going to write about music or suggest sounds . 🙂 😛

            And maybe, maybe , with time, you can even consider sometimes posting about songs and an essay to compliment them.

            Liked by 3 people

            1. Gabriela says:

              Haha, I meant that I would maaaaaaybe link to music in my replies to you, if some painting reminds me of a specific melody.

              Thank you so much for all your encouragements. Your excitement is contagious! 😀

              Liked by 1 person

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