Often in my blogs I have talked about artists’ colonies, places where artists congregated, visited and sometimes lived. In England, I looked at some artists who lived and painted in Newlyn and St Ives. In France there was the commune of Barbizon, close to the Fontainebleau Forest, just a short train ride from the French capital, which was home to the leaders of the Barbizon School, the painters Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet. There was also the artist colony in Brittany at Pont-Aven, where great artists such as Gaugin and Émile Bernard plied their trade. In fact, in most countries, there were areas favoured by artists, usually because of the beautiful landscape and the special light which could be savoured by the en plein air painters during the long summer days. Today and in my next blog, I am focusing on another artist commune and two husband and wife couples who were considered the leading figures of the artistic group. Let me introduce you to four painters who formed part of the Skagen commune of artists. They were Michael Peter Ancher and his wife Anna and Peder Severin Krøyer and his wife Marie.
Skagen, which is part of Jutland, is at the most northerly tip of Denmark. It is a finger of land, which juts out into the sea and is looked upon as the divider between the great waterways of the Skagerrak and Kattergat straits, the former connecting with the North Sea and the latter which leads in to the Baltic Sea. It was at this place that the artists discovered an exclusive and exceptional quality of light. The Norwegian naturalist painter and illustrator, Christian Krohg, best summed up the allure of Skagen for painters when he described the area:
“…This country is mild, smiling, fantastic, mighty, wild, wonderful and awe-inspiring…it is Skagen – there is no other place on the face of this earth like it…”
This unspoilt area was a magnet to artists who flocked to this picturesque destination in the late 19th century in an attempt to escape city life. For them it was a bolt-hole and an opportunity to artistically catalogue a beautiful untouched area, which they believed one day would vanish.
My blog today focuses on Michael and Anna Ancher a talented couple of Skagen School painters.
Michael Peter Ancher was born in June 1849 at Rutsker, a small Danish village on the island of Bornholm. Once he had completed his classical education he set his sights on becoming an artist and in 1871, aged twenty-two, he enrolled on a four-year art course at the Royal Danish Academy of Art. It was whilst on this course that he developed a liking for genre painting, paintings which depicted everyday life. One of his fellow students at the Academy, who befriended him, was Karl Madsen and it was he who persuaded Ancher to accompany him to Skagen in 1874. Ancher’s journey to Skagen with his friend was to influence both his future life as well as his art. Ancher fell in love with Skagen and he decided to make it his home. Skagen was not just a home to artists but was also one for many writers who loved the tranquility of the area and found it conducive in their quest to write a good book or poetry. Hans Christian Andersen often visited Skagen but another writer who was to play a part in Michale Ancher’s paintings was the poet and dramatist, Holger Henrik Herholdt Drachmann who had come to Skagen to write and learn to paint. Drachmann was in awe of the bravery shown by the local fishermen and sailors and often wrote about them in prose and verse.
In 1879, five years after settling down in Skagen Michael Ancher painted one of his most famous works, a painting which featured the hazardous life of the local fishermen. It was entitled Vil han klare pynten (Will he Round the Point?). This work was to be Ancher’s great artistic breakthrough. It was such a popular work that no fewer than two buyers were about to acquire the work before a third one stepped in and took the painting. So who were the proposed buyers? Initially the Copenhagen Art Association were going to buy the painting but agreed to relinquish their grip on the work when the Danish National Gallery stated that they wanted to purchase Ancher’s painting. However they too had to step aside when the king, Christian IX, expressed a “wish” that he should own the work! In the painting we see a dozen men, on Skagen’s southern shore, as the waves lap around their feet. They are all dressed in fisherman’s garb and they are all staring worriedly out to sea worrying about the safe return of one of their comrade’s boats.
As with many small fishing communities the fishermen also acted as lifeboatmen who put their lives on the line for those in peril on the high seas. Ancher depicted such an occasion in his 1883 work entitled Redningsbåden køres gennem klitterne (The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes) in which we see the fishermen arduously hauling their horse-drawn lifeboat cart over the snow-covered sand dunes so that it can be launched into the dark and threatening sea. It is mid-winter and the skies are dark and menacing and in the right background we catch glimpse of the stricken ship. Two men at the tail of the line of fisherman shout to persons unknown, who are outside the picture, and this gesture adds to the sense of urgency and tension of the moment.
The final work by Michael Ancher featuring the heroism of the Skagen fishermen was completed in 1896 and entitled The Drowned Fisherman. The painting is inspired by the death in 1894 of the Skagen fisherman and lifeboatman, Lars Kruse. Kruse was famous throughout Denmark because of a book written by Holger Drachmann which told of Kruse’s heroism as a rescuer. Michael Ancher had already painted a number of portraits of Kruse but this final painting of the Kruse will be the best remembered. Kruse had become the chairman of the Skagen lifeboat and had, through the time as a rescuer, received many awards for the bravery he had shown during his rescue work. An engraving on one of his awards summed up his courage stating:
“…Humble in word, proud of his deed, Christian in deed, Man in his boat…”
Lars Kruse was killed in 1894 whilst trying to land his boat on Skagen’s North Shore in a winter storm. Through Drachmann’s book and Ancher’s painting the name of Lars Kruse lives on in the memory of the Danish people. After over almost twenty years of depictions of Skagen fishermen carrying out their perilous job, this painting of Kruse’s death was the last one by Michael Ancher to feature the local fishermen.
Shortly after Michael Ancher first visited Skagen in 1874, he met fifteen year old Anna Kristine Brondum, a native of Skagen and one of six children of Erik Andersen Brøndum and his wife Ane Hedvig Møller, who ran a local grocery business and the Brondums Guesthouse. He had been invited to Anna’s confirmation and from that first meeting friendship blossomed. Anna, although still young, and Michael had one shared passion – art. In 1875, at the age of sixteen, Anna began a three year drawing and painting course at the Vilhelm Kyhn College of Painting in Copenhagen. This college, known as Tegneskolen for Kvinder (Painting School for Women) was started in 1865 by the Danish landscape painter, Vilhelm Khyn, at a time when women were not allowed to enrol on art courses at the Danish Academy of Art. On returning to her family home in Skagen her friendship with Michael Ancher developed rapidly. They were engaged in 1878 and in 1880 the couple were married. Three years later, in 1883, their daughter Helga was born. Anna was determined to buck the trend which seemed to decree that after the birth of a child the mother should give up all her dreams and solely concentrate her life on the upbringing of her children and the task of looking after her husband and house. Anna refused to give up her art. The following year Michael, Anna and their baby daughter, Helga went to live in a house in Markvej. The family lived there for 30 years. In 1913 they had the house extended to make more space for Michael and Anna’s art.
In 1891 Anna Ancher completed a beautiful painting which featured her eight year old daughter Helga. It was entitled Sunlight in a Blue Room. In the painting we see Helga sitting in the blue room of the Brøndum’s Hotel which was once run by Anna’s parents. She actually completed a number of portraits of her mother, Ane, in this very room. We see Helga sitting quietly drawing on a pad. She too, like her mother and father before her, would study art in the Danish capital. However, the beauty of this painting is the way in which Anna has captured the light which streams through the window. It is a painting of the interior and only the shadows on the wall give us a hint about the exterior.
One of the most moving paintings I came across by Anna Ancher was one she completed in 1902 simply entitled Grief. It was based on a dream she once had – or maybe it was a nightmare. The old woman kneeling on the right is Anna’s mother, Ane Brøndum and it could be that the woman on the left is a self portrait. Anna had been brought up in a very religious household although once away from the family environment and studying at art college, she questioned her religious beliefs especially as she had become surrounded by radical and often atheistic artists who formed the Skagen artistic commune. In some ways this questioning of her early religious family background may have caused her to feel ill at ease and out of this could have come this dream which compares her with her mother. One is old, one is young, one is fully clothed whist the other is naked. The contrast is plain to see as the two people gather around a cross. Is the younger girl praying for forgiveness for her loss of faith or just simply praying that she should be understood? Is the old lady literally praying for the soul of her grow-up child? Is that how Anna envisaged her relationship with her mother?
Michael Ancher died in 1927, aged 78 and Anna Ancher died eight years later in 1935, and the house the lay empty. However their daughter Helga Ancher, who died in 1964, stipulated in her will that any money that she left should be used to create a fund to be known as The Helga Ancher Foundation. The money in the Fund was to be used to renovate her parents’ house and it should house all the paintings by her mother and father that she owned. In 1967, three years after Helga’s death her wish was fulfilled and the museum was opened.
In my next blog I will look at the works of two other Skagen painters, Peder Severin Krøyer and his wife Marie, who were also great friends of the Anchers.