Sunbeams, or Sunlight. ”Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams”

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916)
Ordrupgaard, Charlottenlund Se kort

By Trine Møller Madsen, art and culture writer, 2006

Room in slow motion 

A black and white snapshot of a deserted room. With a window and a closed door. Nothing is happening. Does it sound boring? Well, perhaps. Nevertheless, the majority of spectators are drawn into Hammershoei’s deserted room from the year 1900. The title reveals that something is going on! In fact the whole picture is trembling, precisely revealing the fact that this is not a photo but a painting. 
With minute brush strokes, Vilhelm Hammershoei has reproduced a stark room. It was one of his favourite motifs. Another one was women turning their backs. Both motifs appear closed and reserved. They don’t give away much - at first glance. But this is exactly what makes them enigmatic and attractive. 

Like a dream 

The painting is stringent and geometric. It’s an empty box that we, the spectator, must fill. The delicate colour scale, nearly only greys, creates a quiet poetry. The picture is inward-looking and talks to our feelings and dreams. The light that shines at an angle through the room has the title role. The precise meaning of the light is up to you. Is it a dream or a nightmare? Does the dance in the soft light appeal to you or do you want to get out of the naked room? 

Open the door! 

As in Hammershoei’s other interior paintings, there is a way out of the intrusive emptiness in The Dance of the Dust in the Rays of the Sun. There are always doors - open or closed - and windows, indicating that there is a world outside. Hammershoei opened doors himself. Like many of his fellow artists he travelled in Europe and inhaled the smouldering new trends. 
With his empty geometric room he turned his back to the naturalism that was taught at the Royal Art Academy. Like his fellow painter L.A. Ring, Hammershoei is a symbolist, pointing ahead towards modernism with a focus on form, colour and composition rather than the actual imagery and plot. 

Sunbeams, or Sunlight. ”Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams”, (1900). Oil on canvas, 70 x 59 cm Photo: Anders Sune Berg. Ordrupgaard.
Visuals Arts

Did you know?

In the last few years foreign countries have been acclaiming Hammershøi with exhibitions in Paris and New York. In 2005 the former Monty Python member and Hammershøj admirer Michael Palin made the TV program Michael Palin and The Mystery of Hammershøi (Michael Palin and the mystery Hammershøi). On his website, Palin invites to form the fan club Friends of Hammershoi.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Visuel Art, 2006

There is more light in this picture than in any other painting of Hammershøi’s main motif. The entire empty space is partially bathed in the sunlight coming through the window. The painting primarily draws attention to the white paned window, which appears in sharp contrast to the darker room, in which every detail of the floors, doors and panels is visible. The room is quite bare, and only the many contrasts of the light create atmosphere and life. Like many in his time, Hammershøi was also interested in photographs, which he used it as models for his paintings. This is apparent here where the motif resembles a black and white photograph, in which all the grey mid-tones are included, while Hammershøi has used the light source, with the dancing dust motes, to give the room a particularly poetic atmosphere. Like the romantic painters, Hammershøi’s window motif can also be perceived as a symbol of longing and dreams. The window represents, first and foremost, the visual threshold between inside and out, the near and the distant.

Apart from that, Hammershøi has concentrated on the formal requirements for the painting’s composition. In this picture, the vertical and horizontal planes are very significant. The geometrical shape, the surfaces and the lines of the window seem to anticipate the 20th century’s constructivist painting. The starting point for Hammershøi’s perception of form was the visible and concrete, where individual objects have their own inherent power. Form, light and space were the supporting elements in Hammershøi’s painting. 


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