Sunday, March 18, 2018


Caspar David Friedrich's Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, 1818
Rückenfigur is a German art term for a figure seen from behind, and placed inside the scene as a proxy for the viewer.

Such a figure invites the viewer to identify with the attitude or perspective of the person, who is usually central in the composition. 

Eugen Dücker (1841 - 1916)
By showing only the back of the person, we don't focus as much on their individual identity, and they seem more of a type.

Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916)
A Rückenfigur invites us to wonder what the figure is doing or thinking, and can lend an air of mystery to a scene.

Rückenfigur is different from a repoussoir figure, typically more of a compositional framing element at the outer edges of the scene.

(Link to video) Watch a BBC documentary about Hammershøi by former Monty Python member Michael Palin.
Books: Hammershoi and Europe
Vilhelm Hammershoi 1864-1916: Danish Painter of Solitude and Light (Guggenheim Museum Publications)


Steve said...

Thanks for introducing me to this term. It’s a compositional strategy I’d noticed but hadn’t realized there was a word for it.

Evelyn said...

James, double thanks for this post. I didn't know that a technique I often use has a name, and I'd never heard of Hammershoi. I watched the fascinating Michael Palin BBC video you linked to, and made Amazon two books richer. You are a living national treasure!

Anonymous said...

I was delighted to see Hammershoi featured. His half hidden faces have always attracted me, enough so that four years ago I created a pattern for sewing a simplified version of his sister Anna as the "Young Girl Sewing"
Evidently it also hit a chord with others who sew as I keep getting photos of people's renditions of that Hammershoi painting done in fabric as seen here:
Thanks James,
I always learn when I read your posts.... always entertaining, always something to think about.

Charley parker said...

Contemporary painter Karin Jurick has a delightful ongoing series of art museum visitors in front of paintings:

David Apatoff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Apatoff said...

What a truly cool word, James. It just goes to show that there is a term for everything.

The recent major Vermeer show at the National Gallery of Art attributed the innovation of putting a central figure's back to the audience to Ter Borch in the 1600s. They showed one seminal painting (entitled Gallant Conversation) with a young woman painted that way, and then a whole row of paintings by contemporary imitators using the exact same device. The caption under the Ter Borch painting said, "One of Ter Borch's most lasting innovations was the standing woman with her back to the viewer.... Ter Borch's demure lady seen from behind was emulated more than any other figure in Dutch art."

Personally, I don't know how the National Gallery can speak so authoritatively when they didn't even use the word Rückenfigur.