MetCollects Episode 9 / 2020
MetCollects is an online feature that highlights works of art new to the Museum's collection through the fresh eyes of photographers and the enthusiastic voices of leading scholars and artists. Discover a new work each month.
This meditative self-portrait is part of a group of paintings made in 1911, in which the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi probed his identity as the "Poet of Light—of Quietude—of the Home." Then in his mid-forties, the artist was celebrated across Europe for his interior scenes, which capture with captivating clarity and purity the harmonious interplay of line and light within everyday rooms. The self-portraits of 1911 constitute a campaign of self-representation unusual for Hammershøi, in which he encapsulates his artistic persona by showing himself at work within one of his signature interiors.
In this version of the subject, Hammershøi stands in his rented summer home, Spurveskjul (Sparrow's Retreat), with the edge of his easel just visible in front of him. By showing his left hand raised as if painting, the right-handed artist makes plain that he created his self-portrait by observing his reflection in a mirror. The absence of a painting tool suggests that the picture is unfinished, as does the mauve underpaint discernible in his face and the visibly reworked contours of his head, shoulders, and hand. These traces offer a valuable glimpse into the artist’s working process.
Hammershøi, cast in relatively dim light, stands slightly apart from one of his trademark subjects: a softly lit window and door, the vertical edge of which emphatically divides the composition. The geometric patterns of the architecture, spatial ambiguities, and contrast of opacity and transparency were perennial fascinations for Hammershøi. Equally distinctive is the simplified setting, which emphasizes the play of light over the balcony door and knob. The shifting qualities of illumination and shadow are conveyed by a subtly varied palette, ranging from bright white to purplish gray, applied with softly hatched brushstrokes.
The painting was kept by the artist's wife, Ida, and her descendants until 2014, and it was largely unknown until its private purchase and loan to The Met the next year. This generous gesture has culminated in the promised gift of the picture in celebration of the Museum's 150th anniversary. It joins The Met's Moonlight, Strandgade 30, as one of the few paintings by Hammershøi in an American museum.