Great Works: Sunbeams or Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams 1900 (70 x 59 cm), Vilhelm Hammershoi

Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen

Seldom has a painting been so gloriously full of its own emptiness. It is one of a number of interiors that the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi based on his own first-floor apartment in the Christianshavn district of Copenhagen. It is also what we might call – to borrow a familiar phrase – a "window painting", but it does not share one of the principal characteristics of the window painting. The window is not the frame of the painting, offering some scene of wonderment.

Here the windowscape is something of a trick or a feint. It draws our eye towards it as the source of light, but then it almost rebuffs us. We see a little – a tiled roof, for example – but in fact it is too little to be truly satisfying. And what of the room itself? It seems to be self-enclosed, of itself; the door looks too firmly recessed, scarcely openable at all. It is all so spare and so bare. The window mouldings could scarcely be simpler. There is no decorative refinement here. There are no drapes and no furniture either. Nor is there the merest hint of human drama. The door seems to have the tiniest of tiny keys. The texture of the surface of the floor is not readable at all. It almost tends towards the smoothness of abstraction.

The drama of the painting consists first of all in the illuminated recess of the window itself, of something as evanescent as shafts of light, how they seem to pour through it on the diagonal, and the dust-choked sunbeams themselves, which are so beautifully caught – it is a spreading expanse of greyness, hatched into by light itself. The quality of the light is not rendered self-consciously – this is not an impressionist or a pointillist painting. It errs, if anything, on the side of dusty academicism. Hammershoi despised Impressionism and most other manifestations of the modern. And there is so little colour here. It is so low-keyed, so tonally neutral, always edging off to grey. Its narrow range of colours puts us in mind of the mature Morandi. This was often the case with paintings by Hammershoi – to such an extent, in fact, that one acquaintance speculated that the artist might be colour-blind. This was not in fact true.

How different it is from the great interiors of the Dutch Golden Age! Think of Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. How full those rooms so often were with people, dogs, fabric, spilling vases of trumpeting blooms, window drapes, noise, luscious fabric, and often lubricious laughter. And yet Hammershoi did not always paint his own apartment in this way. At other times it was often much more studiedly populated with objects.

The apartment itself consisted principally of three long rooms, populated with his furniture, his books and in other interiors by Hammershoi we do see this things. He would often shift them about, making new arrangements for paintings. These rooms were his painting studio. And the furnishings we often see in these paintings were typical of a man who lived in comfortable bourgeois surroundings – a square piano, bibelots, paintings by artists of the Danish Golden Age, the previous generation to his own. He would paint this interior again and again, quite often with his wife in attendance. Most often she would have her back to the painter. She would therefore be completely inscrutable, and this is, in general, what we often think about the best of Hammershoi's interiors, that they are opaque in the extreme, psychologically inscrutable, seemingly bland, but in fact rather eerily disturbing.

But seldom quite as inscrutable as this one, which is not so much a picture of an interior as a portrait of a dark, silent psychological space, illuminated, all of a sudden, by a shaft of enlightenment. And it was all pure fabrication too. This was not in fact a quiet neighbourhood at all. Not when Hammershoi lived there. There were docks nearby. Ship's engines were being fabricated at the end of the street.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) was the greatest of the Danish fin de siècle Symbolist painters. He specialised in haunting, ghostlyinterior scenes, which were occasionally inhabited by a woman who would be characteristically standing with her back to us.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...