Private collection, Denmark;
formerly with Groenewald Fine Art, Munich in 2018
Perhaps best known as a ceramicist and designer as well as the younger brother of the artist Vilhelm, Svend Hammershøi was a serious and accomplished painter in his own right. Born in Copenhagen he received his early training in painting at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts from 1890-92 and continued his studies for an additional five years at the Kunstnernes Frie Studieskoler,run by the noted Danish Artist, Kristian Zahrtman. Concurrent with his academic instruction, Hammershøi was employed at several ceramic factories producing designs not only for the Kongelige Porcelainsfabrik, but also for the well-established firms of Bing &Grøndahland Herman A. Kählerwhere works based on his designs are still being manufactured to this day.
After the passing in 1908 of his friend and mentor Thorvald Bindesbøll, the noted architect and fellow ceramic designer, Hammershøi moved away from pottery design and decoration to focus on his painting. The elder Bindesbøll left a large impression on Hammershøi which can be seen in the younger man’s work. Bindesbøll was not only one of Denmark’s leading architects working in a neo-classical idiom, but in his ceramic works he was also exploring an organic abstraction of design that grew out of an admiration of ancient Asian pottery. In 1946, towards the end of his life, Hammershøi penned a biography on the architect commemorating what would have been his 100thyear. In 1910, Hammershøi received a study grant that allowed him to spend the next four years in England drawing and painting the Gothic structures to be found in the towns of Wells and Oxford. He was to return to England between the wars and exhibited at the Royal Institute of British Architects, London and Ryman’s Gallery, Oxford in 1929 as well as the Royal Academy in 1931.
While his elder brother Vilhelm’s paintings concentrate on single figures set in austere interiors consisting of doorframes, windows and wainscoting, the younger Hammershøi’s canvases focus primarily on architectural elements often seen through a veil of barren trees. Although he painted portraits and figural studies, it is the interplay between nature and architecture that dominates much of his work. Installation photographs from his exhibitions reflect the importance he placed on the integration of the arts and nature as his paintings are shown with his ceramic works which are in turn filled with flowers all interspersed with potted shrubs. Much like his silver and ceramic vessels that are clad in flowers, leaves, vines and tendrils found in nature, his paintings of buildings are frequently seen through a scrim of trees and branches.
One of the central themes of Svend Hammershøi’s work was the harmony between architecture and nature – the man-made and the work of God. Rosenborg Castle was an arresting Renaissance building constructed on the outskirts of Copenhagen in 1606. It served as the summer residence of King Christian IV of Denmark.
Set in front of the castle depicted in Hammershøi’s painting is a group of tall trees. Their leafless branches fan out across the wintry sky forming an intricate web that obscures the view of the castle. The low vantage point creates an impression of monumentality. A damp, misty haze reduces the palette to shades of grey and brown and shrouds foreground objects and the tips of the branches. The painting has an unreal, dreamlike quality devoid of human presence and the mood of stillness and melancholy that it evokes is in keeping with the aesthetic of Symbolism. The motif was clearly a source of great fascination for Svend Hammershøi – he returned to it repeatedly over the years.