Vilhelm Hammershøi: A Rare Landscape Drawing
The acclaimed Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi was first and foremost a painter of interiors – of hushed, near-deserted spaces populated by a solitary, seemingly spellbound figure. Contemplative and hauntingly still, these scenes comprise the majority of his œuvre and are the works for which the artist is best known; numbering among them is the National Gallery of Canada’s Sunshine in the Drawing Room (1910), acquired in 2017.
Although lesser known, landscapes also played a central role in Hammershøi’s art. Group of Trees along the Royal Road near Gentofte, Denmark, completed in 1892, is a major new addition to the Gallery’s Prints and Drawings collection. It is a magnificent example of the artist’s unique approach to the landscape genre, where strangeness and silence prevail, and space and line defy all expectations.
The drawing is a precise preparatory study for the central portion of one of Hammershøi’s large-scale landscape paintings, titled Landscape from Kongevejen near Gentofte, north of Copenhagen. Summer (1892), now in a private collection. Looking closely, one can see tiny pin punctures in the corners of the sheet that reveal how the artist hung the drawing as a reference while working on the final painting. Two other related studies survive: a second pencil study, depicting the trees at the right of the painting, is in the collection of the Fondation Custodia in Paris, while an oil painting with similarities to the NGC’s drawing has been recently acquired by The David Collection in Copenhagen.
Hammershøi made few compositional sketches for his pictures, a fact that renders these three studies all the more interesting and raises questions regarding the significance of the final painting. In these works, the artist’s careful study and confident draftsmanship come to the fore: Hammershøi worked meticulously on each individual tree, deftly defining the structure of the trunk and crown, establishing its precise position in relation to the road and imbuing it with a particular personality.
While Group of Trees depicts a deserted-looking thoroughfare flanked by trees, the Kongevejen was actually one of Copenhagen’s busiest arterial roads, located just a few kilometres north of the city. Unlike his Nordic contemporaries, Hammershøi eschewed romantic notions of pure nature untouched by civilization, instead transforming populated areas into desolate, barren sites seemingly abandoned by humanity. A sense of alienation and disquiet pervades his landscape scenes.
Despite the low horizon and the resulting high sky in Group of Trees, there seems to be a total absence of air or atmosphere, an emptiness all around. Suspended in time, the grouping of trees is a microcosm of the world, their seriality suggesting infinite expansion. And yet there is also a claustrophobic quality to the scene. As art historian Robert Rosenblum has commented, Hammershøi’s views around Gentofte “defy our sense of scale, time, and space, diminishing trees to the size of ants, opening voids in all directions, and leaving us immobilized in the midst of a new kind of nature that seems as alien to human life as another planet. For all their expansive spaces, these landscapes are ultimately as imprisoning as the rectangular enclosures of the artist’s rooms or, for that matter, of his views of Copenhagen’s buildings.”
Equally unconventional in Group of Trees is the distance between the scene and the beholder. In the traditional landscape genre dating back to Dutch painters of the 17th century, a road was regarded as a route into the internal space of the picture. With Hammershøi, however, there is no way in. The road in his drawing does not lead inward, but rather runs across the width of the sheet, from one side of the composition to the other. Focus is moved from the foreground to the middle ground, from the near to the semi-distant. The viewer is thus isolated from the scene: the work of art no longer serves to mediate between man and nature, but rather emphasizes the distance between them. Before Hammershøi, no one had perceived and painted a Danish landscape with such a palpable feeling of strangeness and alienation; in this sense, the artist’s landscapes rank among the most unique to have been produced in Europe at the turn of the 20th century.
Although Hammershøi’s fame extended far beyond Danish shores during his lifetime, and his work was appreciated by a wide range of connoisseurs and institutions, his reputation declined after his death in 1916. It is only since the 1980s that there has been a marked resurgence in Hammershøi scholarship, with major monographic exhibitions in Europe, North America and Japan reinstating his name on the art-historical map and cementing his status as one of the most original artists of his day. For Hanne Fugl Eskjær, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Denmark in Canada, this surge of interest in Hammershøi and his “unique visual universe” is not surprising: “His simple, elegant Nordic aesthetic resonates with people around the world. He immerses us in his motifs – whether it is the seeming emptiness of his landscapes or his evocative interior scenes – offering a kind of meditative stillness that many need in today’s hectic and digitized world.”
Group of Trees is the first drawing by Hammershøi to enter a public collection in Canada, and one of the first in North America. The Hammershøi works in the Gallery's collection have been the subject of a recent video conversation between Director Sasha Suda and Ambassador Hanne Fugl Eskjær.
The conversation between Ambassador Hanne Fugl Eskjær and NGC Director and CEO Sasha Suda is available on the Gallery's YouTube channel. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.