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Carl Holsøe, Master of Rooms

The Artist's Wife sitting at a Window in a sunlit Room, ca.1900

Carl Vilhelm Holsøe
was born on the 12 of March, 1863 in northeast Denmark. Holsøe studied in Copenhagen and under the Danish Master Peder Krøyer. Unlike many painters who worked outdoors and favored the majestic landscapes of their environment, Holsøe chose the psychological mood of the domestic interior and the way light spills into rooms. Although Holsøe is often compared to his contemporary and friend, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Holsøe is more authentic and less vacant emotionally. His use of sunlight captures the mindfulness of the moment in a way that is reminiscent of Dutch Masters, utilizing the power of quiet and reading as emotionally satisfying and tranquil.

In the painting above, his wife sits in a kitchen chair looking out the window. On the table are cups of tea and a teapot that Holsøe gently lights the rims. The drapes are of a texture so thick it almost seems like pastel. Look at the greenish reflections on the floor, especially near the entrance of the door...yet the foliage outdoors is loose and abstracted and it does not disturb the view or mood. I love the look on her face, even though she faces the window there is a deep, pensive quality difficult to put into words...this kind of painting is all about the present moment, and is indeed mesmerizing the more you look at it.

Carl Holsøe Mother and child in a dining room interior
Mother and child in a dining room interior, ca. 1900's

Here Holsøe utilizes a much warmer palette and brighter values to offset this caring mother dressed in black, cradling her baby. The amount of detail in this painting is quite substantial compared to the previous one yet the warm sunlight seems to bathe this interior in such a way that the details are nonetheless not a distraction but add character to the composition. Those paintings on the wall are really blurred strokes of colour yet appear to be finished paintings from our viewpoint, and Holsøe even lights the frames with transparent shadows in a way to create three dimensional space. Indeed, the upper wall is washed in that same warm, transparency that creates depth and intimacy to the room. Look at how the area rug beneath the figures appears so realistic by the mastery of values and accurate suggestion of details, however up close it is merely variations of brushwork and edges to create the illusion of texture and light. Although the mother does appear to be cutout in the head and shoulders region up close, from a distance she is graceful and poetic. Holsøe creates atmosphere in the most insignificant details and the personality of the room itself becomes the subject.

CarlHolsoe woman with a fruit bowl Holsoe
Woman with a fruit bowl, ca. 1900
I absolutely love this painting. Streaks of warm light across the wall reflecting bright lights onto the glass of the pictures, and the glow through the drapes behind the woman...this is magic. Holsøe contrasts this warm tone with very cool tones of greyish-blue and yellow on the wall itself—in fact the shadow behind the dresser is an unusual yellowish green-blue and yet it works brilliantly. The furniture itself has a distinct modern personality with strong lines and rich brown tones yet, in essence, the light itself is the main subject here. I like the way the woman is painted here, loose yet ideal values with just the right amount of brushwork to indicate a woman with no more or no less. Notice the smooth blending of the creamy dark values on the wooden floor. Pure magic.

Reading on a Quiet Afternoon, ca. 1800's

Holsøe depicts his wife Emilie reading on a sofa, partially in shadow next to a doorway. This rich contrast of value between dark and light, perspective in near and close, empty and detailed...this feels so much like a Sargent yet has the immistakable character of Holsøe. Look at how the main foreground room is painted in a warm, rich grey that brings out the warmth of the paintings on the wall, yet the distant room is cool and bright grey. Even the painting itself on the wall has a rich glow to it. Despite being in shadow, Emilie reads nonchalantly from what appears to be a rather thick book. Notice also how the furniture around her is more elegant with long lines while the distant room, although mimicking similar long lines, seems more simple and plain. Again, look at those reflections on the floor, splotches of wonderful colors that create the illusion of light on wood. This is a wonderful painting.

A Lady Reading by Lamplight, ca. 1900's

Holsøe manages to take artificial light and transform it into magic once again. Look how the paintings on the wall behind her use a palette that resembles mud yet works brilliantly here in this dimly lit space. Notice how the lamp itself is slightly off-center to balance the composition. The loose brushwork here is so Impressionistic that it looks more like a sketch than a painting, yet Holsøe's shadows and highlights are so dramatic and beautiful here that is is hypnotic nonetheless. The roses on the table are a color accent to break up the earthy tones. Look at how he uses greens in the shadows of the paintings on the wall. Again, the area rug has such richness of texture ranging from impasto to smooth blending and yet it works seamlessly, while the dark shadows under the table and dresser beside her heighten the warmth of the lamplight. Another amazing work in its sheer power of simplicity.

Girl Reading in an Interior,ca. 1900

Not sure about the accuracy of tones in this reproduction, but the mood and light are superb here nonetheless. The light and the way she is nearly silhouetted is reminiscent of Vermeer yet in a more modern version. Note how the arrangement of the chairs here seem to suggest that others may have been in the room recently but the woman is now reading alone. Once again the flowers break up the monotones of the predominant greens. That shadow on the wall behind her is an unimaginable arrangement of yellows, ochres and greens that Holsøe makes as natural as possible. This time the area rug floor has an unusual texture that is reminiscent of a Turner, with ruddish dry tones that is unlike his other paintings. Even the texture on the folds of her dress mimic the glow of the walls behind her, another first for Holsøe. And the furniture itself is indistinct and in shadow mostly, yet the surface of the table she reads on now has the familiar sheen and texture of his floors. Poetic and beautiful.

Salon Interior with a woman, ca. 1900

This is one of the few paintings that Holsøe features a woman not reading but standing. I love the mystery of this painting—where is she going and who is she? Holsøe uses a reflection in the mirror on the wall of the window to add a three dimensionality to the space and composition. The furniture itself is more detailed here also, and the glint of silverware adds realism and personality. The door and drapes have that eerie green glow that is hypnotic and dream-like. This time the floor is rather indistinct and no area rugs feature in this painting at all. Observe the glow of light in the corner above the door with those smooth warms and cools and we see how Holsøe makes light a character itself in the painting, as real as the woman standing by the door. Her bare neck and upper arm suggests a kind of sensualism, intriguing yet not understood. Magic.

Holsøe is more than a painter of rooms but of our interior world, our psychology, expressing as Rothko once said, "the inexpressible" while still maintaining realism. This is very inspiring to me in that within this narrow motif of rooms and solitary figures, Holsøe manages to transform interior painting to the realm of dreams and mood in a way that very few other artists have done. This is magic that lures us in, as all great painting does, and makes us forget the world around us to focus only on the moment. Magic.


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