A descendent of Vermeer or a forerunner of Hopper? Hammershøi, a Danish painter who made his reputation in the 1880s, is without doubt neither. The minimalist intimisme of his interiors and the disturbing atmosphere that emanates from his apparently rigorous approach are sufficient proof of that.
Hammershøi most probably invented the back portrait, as opposed to the existing full-face or side portraits. This seated woman—we cannot tell whether she is a maid or a member of the bourgeoisie, or even guess what she is doing—is intriguing because of her displyed indifference to the spectator. The silent figure has been brushed in a refined range of greys and browns, showing the artist's deep sensitivity to indoor atmospheres.
The composition is a series of right angles: the lines of the chair, the skirting board and the sideboard divide this eulogy of absence into squares with a sort of Protestant rigour. But it would be an error to jump to the conclusion that the painting is an allegory of solitude or human tragedy. Because the real subject is perhaps the nape of the neck, the most indecent part of the body to oriental minds. Just as the few unruly wisps of hair, the opening of the blouse which gives a glimpse of white skin, in counterpoint to the flower-shaped bowl laid on the sideboard, are radical antidotes to the temptation of a purely puritanical interpretation.