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.
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.