In the Spotlight: Sunshine in the Drawing Room (Solskin i dagligstuen) by Vilhelm Hammershøi

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916), Sunshine in the Drawing Room (Solskin i dagligstuen), 1910, oil on canvas, 58 x 67 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Evoking comparisons with the work of artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer and other masters of light, Sunshine in the Drawing Room (1910) by Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916) is a major new addition to the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) collection. On view in the Modern European Galleries, this masterwork is the first Hammershøi in the national collection, and only the second in a Canadian public collection. 

The Gallery’s acquisition of Sunshine in the Drawing Room fills a gap in our European collection for the period around 1900,” says the National Gallery’s Chief Curator, Paul Lang. “The work offers us the opportunity to introduce the public to an artist of considerable importance in the Scandinavian school of painting.”

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, Hammershøi came from a prosperous merchant family. His mother recognized his talent early on, and enrolled him in drawing classes when he was just eight years old. Hammershøi later pursued formal studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, and his work was first displayed publicly in 1885 with a portrait of his sister Anna — a work said to have been admired by Renoir.

In 1888 Hammershøi submitted a portrait titled Young Girl Sewing to the Academy exhibition. The jury turned down the painting, as its imprecise brushwork and flattened perspective went against academic conventions. Undeterred, Hammershøi — then only twenty-one — exhibited the painting in a show of rejected artists that same year. Defying the Academy again, Hammershøi later founded the association Den frie Udstilling (“The Free Exhibition”), modelled on the famous Salon des Refusés.

Hammershøi married Ida Ilsted in 1891, and embarked on a career as a professional artist. Their first home — a flat in a 17th-century brick building at 30 Strandgade in Copenhagen — became the inspiration for many of his interior scenes. Throughout his career, he worked primarily in and around Copenhagen, producing landscapes and portraits, as well as studies of architecture and interiors. He also travelled frequently through Europe, and was especially taken with London and its dense coal-fired fog.

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916), Sunshine in the Drawing Room (Solskin i dagligstuen), detail, 1910, oil on canvas, 58 x 67 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Ida often features in his interiors, likely including Sunshine in the Drawing Room. Interestingly, she was also a frequent subject of works by her brother, Peter. Peter and Hammershøi were lifelong friends and business partners, and in 2001 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City held an exhibition of their combined work.

Hammershøi’s early paintings were particularly celebrated by authors and artists of the time, who praised his simple compositions reflecting everyday life. They were also taken by the visual tension so prevalent in his work. Through muted colours and figures who are either turned away from the viewer or located in the background, Hammershøi often created a sense of mystery and even suspense.

First exhibited in Copenhagen in 1915, Sunshine in the Drawing Room is the fourth and final painting of the Hammershøi drawing room at 30 Strandgade. Although the first three versions were painted in 1903, Sunshine in the Drawing Room represents a return to the theme two years after the Hammershøis had left the flat.

In the painting, the room is illuminated by sunlight filtering through an unseen window. A 19th-century portrait hangs prominently above an elegant sofa, next to a chair and a closed secretaire. The lone figure in the room — a woman seated at the table — is engrossed in her work, seemingly unaware that she is being observed.

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916), Sunshine in the Drawing Room (Solskin i dagligstuen), detail, 1910, oil on canvas, 58 x 67 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

According to NGC Associate Curator of European and American Art, Anabelle Kienle-Poňka, “Hammershøi’s muted palette and controlled application of paint evoke a sense of stillness, yet painting and room also have a vibrant quality thanks to the carefully imagined bright sunlight that hits the wall. Hammershøi generally laboured long hours on a single canvas. Here, he applied the paint in short, even brushstrokes in several layers before adding a final thin veil of grey across the image to give it a hazy glow.”       

Kienle-Poňka further notes that a study of the four versions of Hammershøi’s drawing room demonstrates that Hammershøi changed the composition with each iteration. The first, Sunshine in the Drawing Room I (Private Collection), provides only a glimpse into the space, with the rest of the room obstructed by a female figure and two tables. In Sunshine in the Drawing Room III (Nationalmuseum Stockholm), Hammershøi radically altered the view, focusing exclusively on the sofa and side chairs. Sunshine in the Drawing Room II is virtually identical to the NGC painting, but for the fact that the room is more cluttered.

In his 1910 Sunshine in the Drawing Room, created seven years after the first three, Hammershøi edited out a table and chair on the left to open up the vista, inviting the viewer into the room. With this deliberate artistic choice, he has created a more sophisticated and orderly arrangement.

Vilhelm Hammershøi remains one of the most important Scandinavian painters active of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His output is thought to encompass some 370 paintings, first catalogued in 1918 by collector Alfred Bramsen, and the authoritative catalogue raisonnée to this day.

But, while he was a major figure in Scandinavia, Hammershøi’s art was little known in the rest of Europe and North America, and the dominance of the French School had largely extinguished any memory of the painter by mid-century. In the early 1980s, however, the important 1982 touring exhibition Northern Light reintroduced Hammershøi to a North American audience, and identified him as one of the great Northern Modern masters. In recent years his popularity has been on the rise, thanks to a number of major solo exhibitions, which have firmly put his name on the map in Europe, North America and Japan. 

Kienle-Poñka adds that, “Hammershøi’s apartment served as a stage set for his interior scenes. While we are drawn into this private world, the artist’s reserve — emphasized by the woman who is turned away from us — keeps us at bay. It is this tension between intimacy and privacy that makes Sunshine in the Drawing Room so compelling. The painting is a great example of the artist’s carefully edited interiors, where time appears to stand still, reflecting the psychological complexity of the Modern experience.”

 Sunshine in the Drawing Room by Vilhelm Hammershøi is on view in Gallery C215.

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