The Danish master Vilhelm Hammershøi and his sparse interiors remain an enigma. To coincide with a major new survey of his work in Paris, Cath Pound tries to unlock their mystery.

Whether he was painting a corner stove, a sofa or a series of white doors, the late 19th Century Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi managed to imbue the seemingly commonplace objects in his half-empty rooms with “a quality not of this world, a reflection of sublime existence,” as the art historian Julius Elias put it in 1916.

Although his oeuvre encompassed enigmatic portraits, eerily unpopulated landscapes and cityscapes and a series of uniquely disquieting nudes, it is these mysterious interiors, subtly rendered in shades of grey and white and often featuring a woman seen from the rear, which have struck a particular chord with contemporary audiences since his emergence from relative obscurity some 20 years ago.

More like this:

- The hidden figures revealed by art

- How the moon was one of the earliest human symbols

- Why The Night Watch is still a mystery

“We see millions of images every day and most of them are horrible and then you put yourself in front of a bare interior by Hammershøi and, without wanting to sound trivial, it’s like being in a yoga lesson. You have to take out everything of yourself to go back to the essential,” says Jean-Loup Champion, curator of Hammershøi, the master of Danish Painting, a new exhibition devoted to him running at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris until November.

An initial sense of calm often gives way to something more unsettling

They are pictures which certainly call for quiet contemplation even if an initial sense of calm often gives way to something more unsettling. In the sublimely beautiful Sunshine in the Drawing Room III (1903) the delicately observed play of light has an almost meditative quality to it; however its evocation of  silence gradually brings on a creeping sense of existential isolation.

The empty seat facing a closed door in Interior with Windsor Chair (1913) disquietingly suggests an absent presence or arouses a sense of anticipation for someone’s arrival. The entire space has the curiously ethereal feel of a waiting room between this world and the next.

Home discomforts

Hammershøi was painting at a time when interiors were a hugely popular motif. The home was seen as refuge from increasing industrialisation and artists enthusiastically portrayed the concept of hygge in paintings which suggested comfort and warmth. “But you cannot feel that in front of Hammershøi,” says Champion. “It’s absolutely the contrary, it’s very disturbing.”

Hammershøi appears to have been as taciturn, quiet and reserved as his art. He had a small, close circle of family and friends, many of whom appeared in his work, but in general he lived the life of a recluse, rarely appearing in public or commenting on his work.

From 1898 to 1909, his home was an apartment at Strandgade 30 in the Christianshavn district of Copenhagen and it is here that he painted most of his interiors. Favouring an austere aesthetic, in marked contrast to the sumptuous interiors common amongst the upper-middle classes, he and his wife Ida had the  18th Century wall mouldings, doors and walls painted a uniform white and the walls and ceilings in muted shades of grey, blue and yellow, with the wooden floorboards stained dark brown.

Their minimal furnishings, including two sofas, a chest of drawers, some tables and a piano, were systematically re-arranged to create compositions whose limited and non-naturalistic palette divorces the images from reality, giving them an almost otherworldly quality.

That is amplified when he introduces the figure of Ida, almost always seen from the rear. Although women were an integral presence in the Dutch genre and Danish Golden Age paintings which were a clear influence on Hammershøi, providing a sense of narrative, warmth or intimacy, none of these elements are evident in his work. The presence of Ida does not give his interiors life; instead, they remain as inaccessible and unreadable as the woman herself.

The woman in the window

That inscrutability is only enhanced when Hammershøi subverts the familiar Golden Age window motif which was often used to express a dialogue with the outside world. However, in a work such as Interior, Strandgade 30 (1901) in which Ida stands in shadow facing a wall, unable or unwilling to approach the window further in front of her, Hammershøi instead creates  a metaphor for the loneliness of the individual. Her solitude is heightened by the frames, eerily devoid of pictures, which hang on the wall behind her. “You don’t know why this poor woman is facing the wall like that,” says Champion. “There is no hint as to what is happening inside her mind.”

The empty frames appear again in Interior with a Woman Standing (undated) in which Ida stands with bowed head in front of a window. Perhaps it is the softer light or the delicate nature of the duck-egg blue walls but here she seems more contemplative than alone. “I think that’s one of the reasons people are attracted to it now,” says Champion. “Since there is no psychology, no story, you can just put your own vision in to it.”

Hammershøi can be seen as a forerunner of Edward Hopper – there is the same discomfort in their work

There is only one image in which Ida seems at ease and this is Rest (1905) in which she sits turned away from us, slumped in a chair, the nape of her neck making for an uncharacteristically sensual focus.  “It’s very special this one, because it doesn’t look like the others,” says Champion. “I find in this one everything that is lacking in the others… there is a sweetness in this painting. It’s almost like he wanted to paint a portrait, but from behind.”

The painting is a rare example of Hammershøi’s work projecting warmth. By contrast, when Ida is seen from the front in Three Young Women (1895) along with her two sisters in law, the picture, far from displaying happy families, feels oppressive. “They don’t connect ever, it’s like each one was imprisoned in his own world,” says Champion.

Hammershøi may have subverted the motifs of his Dutch and Danish predecessors but in another sense he can be seen as a forerunner of Edward Hopper. Champion agrees there is “the same discomfort.” In drawing comparisons between Hopper’s most famous work, Nighthawks (1942) and Three Young Women he says “it’s always a question of being alone, you feel alone when you are in front of both these paintings.”

However, he sees Hopper as being more emphatic in his portrayals of anguish. “There is a beautiful Hopper painting with a woman half-clothed sitting on a bed and there is a window and nothing else,” says Champion. “You can feel the drama which was there before. There is narrative, that’s the difference.”

A painter for our times?

With Hammershøi we are left to project our own emotions onto the paintings and if they are frequently ones of anxiety and unease that perhaps says more about the turbulent times we live in than the Danish master’s unfathomable intentions. Though given Hammershøi was living in an era when Danes were contending with significant territorial losses and growing tensions within Europe, it is possible contemporary viewers reacted similarly to the work.

But his ability to draw such feelings from us is not the sole source of his appeal.  “Of course, we don’t forget that they are incredibly beautiful,” says Champion.

Emil Hannover, an art historian and friend of Hammershøi’s, saw his work as “a silent protest against all the gaudy and gaping tastelessness of our time.” In our own era which is infinitely gaudier and more tasteless than late 19th and early 20th Century Denmark, in which we yearn to declutter our homes of unnecessary purchases and our minds of unnecessary distraction perhaps it is unsurprising that his paintings resonate so deeply. Disquieting he may be, but there’s also a solace in his sparseness – he is the painter we need right now.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.