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Truth told by one’s back

Posted December. 29, 2022 07:41,   

Updated December. 29, 2022 07:41


Most portraits are a depiction of the front or side view of the subject. However, Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi painted the back of the subject. People in his paintings are turning their backs on the viewers, staying in a plain room with only minimum furniture, thus leaving viewers in bewilderment, wondering about the identities and expressions of the subjects in the paintings. Why did the artist draw the back of the models?

Born in Copenhagen, Hammershoi is a renowned painter known for his poetic, tranquil, and muted paintings of portraits and rooms. Although he traveled widely in Europe, including London and Paris, Hammershoi lived in Copenhagen for his entire life and drew his home and surrounding landscapes. This painting shows an interior of a room of an apartment in the Strandgade 30, where he had lived for 11 years since 1898. A woman sitting on a wooden chair is leaning her right arm on the back of the chair, keeping a relaxed position. On the top of the table sits a white, flower-shaped porcelain bowl. It is not cognizable whether the woman is a maid or a bourgeois lady, for the viewers can only observe her back. The dominant colors of the painting are muted greys and browns, imbuing a sense of serenity and tranquility, even a little bit of gloomy feeling. It is, however, too hasty to conclude that the artist attempted to convey a sense of loneliness and solitude of a human being. The woman, with the back of her neck laid bare, has her hair unkempt, and her blouse is not fully buttoned up. This may come across as sensual, but the woman is taking a rest, as suggested by the title of the painting, after a day’s work or taking a midday break.

The painter’s wife, Ida, became a model for this painting. Her pensive gaze, deep in sorrow, which might have been attributed to anxiety disorders that she inherited from her mother, is observable in most of her portraits where her face is visible. That Hammershoi did not have a child and mostly drew the back of his wife might have been due to Ida’s anxiety disorder.

The front appearance does not hide a person’s identity or expression. It might have been for this reason that both the painter and his wife preferred the back painting. In some way, one’s appearance from behind reveals much more than the front view can. The husband might have captured the moment when his wife was truly taking a rest. Maybe that is why her laid-back appearance comes across as natural and beautiful. A painting drawn 100 years ago is asking us: what does your back look like?