Myths without Narratives
The painting Artemis is atypical of Hammershøi’s overall oeuvre. The title refers to mythology, but we do not see a narrative described in the painting. Hammershøi was not, however, the only painter to work with myths in a new way.
A particular large-scale painting by Hammershøi stands apart from his overall oeuvre: Artemis from 1893-94. Who are the four figures, where are they, and how should we respond to the title? Simply put: What is going on?
With the title Hammershøi referred to the realm of mythology – to tales about gods and goddesses so often depicted in art through the ages. The crescent moon above the head of one of the figures is an attribute of Artemis – goddess of the hunt and wild animals – but other than that we are offered no direct explanation for the image. It looks like a myth, but a myth without a narrative. Rather, Hammershøi has emphasised how the four bodies stretch across the surface and the large, uniform planes that traverse the painting. He worked on the basis of images and ideas, not on the basis of nature.
Puvis de Chavannes - an inspiration?
Hammershøi was not alone in addressing mythology in a new way in his painting. One of the paintings he may have had in mind while painting Artemis is the French artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes' Young Girls by the Seaside from 1879. The painting mimes three Venus-like women, yet has a neutral title, and there are no direct references to a familiar mythological tale.
Puvis de Chavannes' paintings are often enigmatic, and he achieves his mysterious atmosphere partly by placing figures in desolate landscapes and by working with simplified compositions and large, uniform areas of subdued colours. This visual language has several traits in common with Hammershøi’s painting.
A take on a new mythology
Another French artist known for his original takes on a new mythology is Paul Gauguin. The painting Tahitian Women Bathing is also based on classical depictions of women, but at the same time takes its point of departure in something the artist has seen.
Gauguin combined his mental images with scenes he had witnessed at various points and created a synthesis out of these inputs. Unlike Hammershøi and Puvis de Chavannes, he juxtaposed bright, vibrant colours that gave rise to intense optical effects. He did so deliberately in order to make the painting create links that would affect people like music.
From myth to an actual body
Hammershøi’s much later painting of a standing nude is clearly different from the Artemis image because it takes its point of departure in an actual body. A woman who was present. Whereas Artemis, to paraphrase Hannover, is a dream of beauty, this standing nude is a kind of image of existence that nevertheless draws on a tradition for depicting the naked female form.