Ilsted, Peter (1861-1933)

Ilsted, Peter (1861-1933)
Ilsted, Peter (1861-1933)

Danish artist Peter Ilsted created intriguing interior scenes which saw him form part of what was known as the ‘Copenhagen Interior School.’ Often overshadowed by his brother-in-law and great friend Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), Ilsted’s works possess their own dynamism, and his production of mezzotint prints were revolutionary for their use of the ‘à la poupée’ method.

The son of a wealthy merchant, Ilsted was able to begin developing his artistic interest from a young age. This culminated with attendance at the eminent Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, which attained for him a comfortable landing in the Danish art world. Ilsted would begin to exhibit at the prominent Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition with the completion of his studies. Here, he saw much success, winning a gold medal in 1885.

These accolades and acknowledgement of his skill allowed him to travel. Ilsted journeyed across Europe and into Egypt and the Middle East. However, it was his works produced in and depicting scenes of Denmark which would bring him the most notoriety. It was also in Denmark that he would meet a great artistic inspiration.

In 1891, Ilsted’s sister Ida married the painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. For the two artists, this would begin a long and amiable artistic relationship. Together, along with other artists such as Carl Holsøe (1863-1935), these two men would form what would become known as the ‘Copenhagen Interior School.’

At the time Ilsted and Hammershøi were working, interior scenes of the home were a very popular motif in Danish art. Often invoking feelings of sentimentality, comfort, and warmth, interiors shut out the grimy industrialisation of their time and looked towards the simpler life of the home. Inspiration was taken from the Dutch masters of the 17th century such as Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).

In their early careers, both Ilsted and Hammershøi opted for these effusively light interiors. However, Hammershøi began to develop a distinct style of interior which casts aside comfort and instead encourages contemplation. Melancholy and a thrumming sense of tension run through works in which the colouring is subdued, light is wan, and the solitary (often female) figures have their backs turned, inciting mystery. This motif of the solo woman was also taken from the Dutch 17th-century masters, however, Hammershøi was innovative in his framing and the invocation of mood through the use of colour and light.

The influence of Ilsted’s brother-in-law upon his work is evident. Ilsted also often features female figures sitting solitary, oftentimes with their backs turned. Even in examples where they are facing towards the viewer or seated side-on, they are oftentimes engaged in lonely tasks, such as reading. He also invokes the same muted colours as Hammershøi, often casting sunlight off bare walls. This display of space across the canvas conjures contemplation within the viewer. Are these women lonely? What thoughts run through their mind? Is the light a comfort to this woman, or does it cast her thoughts into even sharper relief?

All of this is not to say that Ilsted did not work from his own originality. Indeed, Ilsted invokes small pops of colour through his works which add a distinctive air. A woman peels zesty oranges, pink curtains flush sunlight in a soft blush.

His painterly skill is also recognisable. He was celebrated for his soft diffusions of light and chiaroscuro, often bringing to mind the work of Reubens. Ilsted seems to add just enough softness to his works so that they uniquely sit between the traditions of interior scenes, whilst also losing none of the innovations inspired by Hammershøi.

The skills Ilsted applied to his paintings were also carried across to his work in mezzotint etchings. In this medium, he was a very accomplished craftsman, and it was to these prints that his attention was primarily devoted from the early 20th century onwards.

Ilsted was an innovator of the ‘à la poupée’ method. This is a process in which rags soaked in different colours are carefully applied to the metal plate upon which the print has been etched. This process is repeated until, when printed on paper, the effect is a vibrant sense of colour.

The skill with which Ilsted worked in this method is evident from the prints that remain. They are barely indistinguishable from his oil paintings. The same chiaroscuro defines them. There is that familiar attention to the bouncing of light off of walls, of solitary female figures. Ilsted was not only creating works that were innovating the interior scene genre but was also doing so in a manner which innovated the medium of mezzotint etchings.

Ilsted work was much exhibited both within Denmark and across Europe, including at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889. He also won a number of accolades. The most significant of which was the Eckersberg Medal in 1899, awarded by the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts for artistic merit. He also received a bronze medal at the prestigious Paris Salon.

Ilsted’s congenial relationship with the Academy expanded beyond his art. He worked for periods of time as an assistant and curator at the Academy. He was also a member of their Plenary Assembly, demonstrating that he was respected within the Danish art world.

Peter Ilsted’s works are the legacy of an artist who understood innovation as well as a sense of his own artistic identity. He took inspiration from his brother-in-law, Vilhelm Hammershøi, and yet retained a sense of his creative style. He was also a revolutionary in the approach to mezzotint etching during his time. His work with the ‘à la poupée’ arguably inspired other etchers such as Manuel Robbe (1872-1936).

Today, his works are often exhibited in art institutions across the world alongside Hammershøi’s and other members of the ‘Copenhagen Interior School.’


Born in Sakskøbing, Denmark.


Studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.


Exhibited with the Artists’ Association.


Debut exhibition at the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition.


Awarded a small gold medal by the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.


Travelled to France, Spain, Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and Turkey.


Travelled to Paris, France. Received an honourable mention at the Paris Salon. Exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, France.


Married Ingeborg Lovisa Petersen. Travelled to Italy and France.


Worked as an assistant at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.


Awarded the Eckersberg Medal.


Awarded a bronze medal at the Paris Salon.


Travelled to Britain.


Died in Copenhagen, Denmark. Buried in Stubbekøbing Cemetery, Denmark.

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