Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Vilhelm Hammershøi
Royal Academy, London
3rd July 2008

Resting, 1905
Oil on Canvas 49 x 46cm

A woman is seated on an open backed chair, with her hair gathered up in a bun. Her right arm is hooked over the back of the chair. Her gaze is at the wall on the left hand side of the painting. She is wearing a black skirt and a dark grey blouse with puffed sleeves and a scooped neck. A piece of porcelain is on a table/dresser on the right and side. Light is coming from the left hand side of the painting and catches the back of her neck and the porcelain bowl. A shadow is cast on the floor and wall on the left hand side.

Canvas is quite fine and has a thin umber colour over the primer. The painting has been built up with a series of thin washes, particularly noticeable in the blouse. Uses a round brush very confidently to apply thicker paint to depict the folds in the blouse; reminds me of Manet. Particularly liked how he uses the paint to delieate the arm, but the body of the blouse is just the ground colour.

Uses thicker paint on the neck which is applied with short brushstrokes of a short flat bristle. The back of the chair has a similar treatment with the brush work following the form, although he does leave some small areas without paint. Brushwork for the wall is almost cross hatching except where it meets the figure, then it follows the form. The light to dark transition of the shadow on the wall looks to be in slightly thicker paint – although this appearance might be as a result of wet in wet blending.

The painting is behind glass, so it is hard to tell how rich the oil in the paint is, but looking at unglazed examples from the same year, I would say the paint is lean and has been varnished afterward.

The composition is a series of right angles, which clearly owes something to Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother from 1871. Like Whistler, he conveys a sense of harmony with his composition, but I think Hammershøi’s painting is much more melancholic. It is the anomalies within the painting that I percieve as melancholic.

The fact that the sitter is deep in self-examination displaying total indifference to the spectator is the main incongruence in what is a classic portrait composition, but there are other more subtle nuances. The crop of the flower-shaped bowl laid on the sideboard, the loose brush work in such a tight ordered composition, and the arm hooked over the back of the chair.

In this as with all his other paintings shown, nothing is seen to be happening, and as Felix Krämer notes in the exhibition catalogue ‘the figures introduce no element of vitality into the rooms’[1] resulting in a pervasive mood of ennui and time suspended.

[1] Felix Krämer Vilhehm Hammershøi: The Poetry of Silence Hammershøi Catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts 2008, page 25

©blackdog 2009

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