Visit the Conservator

Striving for calm and intimacy

It is not unusual that a conservator discover something during the course of his/her everyday work that piques the curiosity and which, upon closer inspection, offers up new knowledge that adds to our understanding of the artist’s work and helps elucidate his working process.

Woman seen from the back, 1888

Replacement of paintings for a period
In the exhibition Hammershøi and Europe many of the Gallery’s own paintings by Hammershøi were exhibited. Other works were lent out as replacements during the exhibition run. All paintings were examined in order to check their condition beforehand; this was done to ensure that the works could be safely lent out.

X-ray reveals the painting methods of Hammershøi
One of the works that was lent out as a replacement was Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Woman seen from the back,1888. The painting depicts a woman, her back turned to us. To the right of the woman we see a desk and the back of a chair. The background is an almost uniform grey with few variations in colour. But in the background something happens that prompts the conservator to take note and become curious.

What can we make of this painting?
In the grey background, a visible edge is showing (see illustration). This edge, which should not be confused with the edge where the canvas is folded around the stretcher, appears in the form of a ridge of clearly visible impasto brushstrokes in the paint layer. The ridge is further accentuated by a lighter, transparent layer of colour in the area between the ridge and the woman. To the left of the women another, vertical edge of paint can be seen.

The edge of paint shows up as a small ridge of paint a few centimetres within the picture plane, where it is fully or almost aligned with the folded canvas edges to the left and at the top.

The canvas edge is folded around the stretcher and secured with nails.

Cardboard frame as a tool
We know that Hammershøi used a cardboard frame when painting. He would either paint the entire image within that frame, or use the frame to decide on the final cropping of his motif. Here, it might appear as if Hammershøi painted his picture within such a frame, causing the paint – and his brushstrokes – to brush up against the edge of the frame, thereby forming a small ridge of pigment. If this is the case, why did Hammershøi subsequently change his composition by moving the edge of the picture further up and to the left?

The canvas edges tell us a lot
These questions inspired us to examine the canvas edges and to make x-raydiographs of the painting to see if this would unearth additional information. By examining the edges of the painting we would be able to determine whether the paint layer continues on the folded edges and whether there were original nail holes present. Inspecting these issues would tell us whether the artist changed the painting’s format at a later date or whether he amended its cropping even before it was mounted. Finally, x-radiographs of the
painting might reveal possible changes to the motif.

Information lost
Unfortunately the original canvas has been cut during a past conservation treatment and important information may have been lost. If the canvas had been fully intact we would have been able to determine the extent of the paint layer and make up where Hammershøi eventually decided to fold the canvas when he mounted on the stretcher.

Interior with the Artist's Easel, 1910

Hammershøi's use of a painting board
Due to the missing edges we do not have any definite indications that Hammerhøi mounted the canvas onto a painting board during the painting process. But what the incomplete canvas edges do tell us is that the paint layer continues beyond the folded edge, which indicates the use of a painting board.

It is worth noting that Hammershøi himself depicts a painting board on his easel in Interior with the Artist’s Easel from 1910, which can be seen in the current Hammershøi exhibition. You can see part of such a cardboard frame used to crop the motif jutting out on the left side of the painting.

This x-ray shows how the woman has been moved further down and to the left, but we also see that her posture has been changed slightly.

Why did Hammershøi expand the format of his painting?
The x-ray of the painting clearly shows that the motif has been amended. The woman has been moved down and slightly to the left. This is mostly visible in the white apron around the woman’s waist, which shows up clearly in the x-rays.  The fact that the woman is moved down is deliberate, but the fact that she is simultaneously moved to the left may simply be coincidental. The heads of the two female figures are placed on more or less the same vertical line, but a small change to the woman’s pose also moves her left arm and torso to the left. Deliberately – or coincidentally?

It is likely that the ridge of paint visible in the grey background marks the original delimitation of the painting, i.e. the first edge of the painting before Hammerhøi decided to change his motif and expand the painting. For when the female figure was moved down and to the left Hammershøi also had to shift the cropping of his motif to the left in order to avoid having the figure stand too close to the left-hand edge. That would not have worked in terms of composition.

Curiosity provide new insight
And so it can happen that a ridge in the paint makes you pause and wonder. That such an anomaly in the midst of the painting prompts us to investigate the painting’s genesis. And that we are ultimately tempted to link our observations to one of Hammershøi’s other paintings – Interior with the Artist’s Easel (1910) – where Hammershøi shows us his working set-up complete with a painting board and cardboard frame visible on the easel. All this serves to further sharpen our eyesight as we continue to examine Hammershøi’s painting technique.

Written by:
Henriette Heyn Olsen
Konserveringstekniker, maleri

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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