Not just grey and white: the Vilhelm Hammershøi Digital Archive project

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The rapidly growing international interest in the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi’s work among scholars and the public alike has resulted in an increased attention to this artist's working methods and technical development by museums, researchers and collectors. However, little is known about the technique and material aspects of his art. The Vilhelm Hammershøi Digital Archive (ViHDA) project of the National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst, SMK) aims at investigating the formation and evolution of Hammershøi’s working methods, materials and techniques through technical and scientific documentation of his works.

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Historical Background
Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) was Denmark's internationally best-known artist around 1900. Today, museums worldwide increasingly collect his paintings, and exhibitions of his works have attracted great interest. However, despite a considerable body of art historical research into Hammershøi’s oeuvre and iconography compiled through many years, knowledge about the technical aspect of his art such as his painting and drawing techniques, as well as his choice and use of materials, is limited.
When looking at Vilhelm Hammershøi's works with their toned down colour attitude, calm surfaces and light effects, many will be left with the perception that the artist worked in a few shades of grey supplemented with a handful of warmer brownish colours. In 1907, one reviewer wrote, "Grey and white are his favourite colours," while another noted the artist's works as "small melodies from the grey, Nordic world."
In reality, we know very little about Hammershøi's selection of pigments and techniques. Preliminary analyses performed at SMK before 2019 suggested that his technique and choice of materials were complex and sophisticated and, at the same time, underwent significant development throughout his career. The findings were illustrative of the subtle and refined technique of an artist who, by some, was even regarded as colour blind in the past. For instance, point measurements by X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy of various shades of grey in Hammershøi's works revealed that the muted hues in his compositions, with their seemingly reduced tonality, were produced not just by mixing white and black pigments, but also by adding other colours such as cobalt blue. These pilot tests suggested that a treasure trove of new knowledge would emerge through systematic studies of, for example, Hammershøi's colour mixtures and brush technique, which would be of great value in contributing to the mapping of his distinctive artistic qualities.
The 4-year ViHDA research project is carried out at the SMK in collaboration with The Hirschsprung Collection, Ordrupgaard and The David Collection. The goal of the project is to create an interdisciplinary online archive, which will display the technical side of Hammershøi's art production and working methods based on critical examination of his use of canvases, pigments and brushes. Such information is documented through numerous advanced imaging methods and scientific analyses. With such a broad range of technical investigations, it is possible to observe closely the countless small strokes of colour that Hammershøi applied to his canvases, and even dive through the different layers, allowing us to map the technical aspects of his art production from palette to canvas. This comprehensive data collection will be publicly accessible online, offering a basis for a more nuanced view of Hammershøi's artistic idea, chromatic perception and technical development for use in art historical research and dissemination in Denmark as well as internationally.
Project structure and forthcoming outcomes
To understand Hammershøi's methods and technique such as use of pigments and canvases, the investigation includes visual and technical examination, imaging, scientific analyses, and registration of paintings from Danish and foreign public and private collections. The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between conservators, conservation scientists, art historians and imaging experts. It will result in an open access digital archive where data, images and other results collected during the project will be made available to scholars and the public.
Scientific methods comprise multiband imaging, infrared reflectography, X-radiography, and chemical analysis by Macro-XRF, Raman and reflectance spectroscopy. Additionally, samples are analysed by scanning electron microscopy – energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDX). Multiband imaging and infrared reflectography allow us to look beneath the surface of Hammershøi's paintings and reveal the early stages of the compositions and their execution. X-radiography can inform us of possible changes made during the painting process and the nature of the canvases as well as their weave mapping and thread counting. In addition, MA-XRF and SEM-EDX can map the elements in the paint and ground layers, making it possible to identify the chemical composition of Hammershøi's colours in the individual paintings and samples.

The goal of the ViHDA project is to compile a comprehensive amount of data on Hammershøi’s use of materials and working methods by visual and technical examination of a large number of his paintings, and to make this information available to researchers and the public in an open access digital resource.
Since such evidence-based knowledge will be essential not only to understand the significance of his works, but also to determine their authenticity, provenance and dating, the digital archive will be a valuable and necessary resource for assisting museums and private individuals in the assessment of the quality and geographical/temporal location of artworks that could have originated from Hammershøi's hand.
During the first year of the project, we have inspected approximately 50 oil paintings from the SMK, Hirschsprung, David, Aarhus Kunstmuseum and Åmells Konsthandel collections, as well as from private collectors. This paper will present the most significant analytical results that have been collected from the examined paintings and that will be included in the digital archive.
StatusIkke-udgivet - 2022
BegivenhedICOM-CC 20th Triennial Conference
- Valencia, Spanien
Varighed: 18 sep. 202322 sep. 2023
Konferencens nummer: 20th


KonferenceICOM-CC 20th Triennial Conference