The Krohg Family – Part 1 – Christian Krohg. The early years and life at Skagen

Christian Krohg

The art of one of the painters I am looking at today was compartmentalised as being works of a Naturalism genre and also of a Realism genre. So what is Naturalism and how does it differ to Realism when appertaining to art?

The best way to describe Naturalism is to say that it is a type of art that pays attention to very accurate and precise details. It is painting which is true to what we see without any falsification or artistic interpretation.  That sounds like Realism !

Naturalism was an artistic movement, which came into being in the mid-nineteenth century and embodied things closer to the way we observed them. Prior to this, depictions of landscapes or human beings tended to be idealised or rendered according to precepts resulting from the traditions of classical art. Naturalism was a denouncement of the fantasy world of Romanticism, which had flourished from the late eighteenth century into the first half of the nineteenth century. Naturalism is also often associated with plein air painting.

But is this not the definition of Realism? The two are close but Realism, especially Social Realism, focuses more on social realities and concentrates on content rather than the methodology of the work. Realism tends to deliberate on who or what is being painted rather than how it was painted and realist depictions often muse over ordinary people, who are often struggling with life. Often Realism paintings have a moralistic story to tell and they then tend to be viewed as a commentary on the social and political life of the day. Naturalism tends to be more about how the work has been painted ensuring that it is true to life.

Self Portrait by Christian Krohg

Christian Krohg was born in Vestre Aker, a district of the city of Oslo on August 13th 1852, the son of the journalist and publisher, Georg Anton Krohg and Sophie Amalie Holst. His paternal grandfather, Christian Krohg was a lawyer, government minister, and had at various times served as Minister of the Interior and Minister of Finance.

Christian was the second-born of their children and had four sisters, Anna Helene Nicoline, born in June 1850, Stine Marie, born in December 1854, Nanna born in January 1859, and Sophie Amalie Holst born in April 1861. Christian’s mother died on April 28th 1861, seven days after having given birth to Sophie and maybe in memory of her mother she was also named Sophie Amalie Holst. In June 1868 more sadness was to befall Christian’s family when Christian’s younger sister, Nanna, contracted tuberculosis and died, aged nine.

Still life with a D.O.M. Bottle by Christian Krohg (1883)
The D.O.M. stands for Deo Optimo Maximo which means – To God most good, most great.

Following his normal schooling Christian went to the Royal Frederick University (now the University of Oslo) in 1869 to study law, the plan, probably fostered by his father, being that he would become a lawyer, like his grandfather.   However for Christian his main interest was art and maybe through an agreement with his father that if he studied for a law degree he would be allowed to also attend art classes at the local drawing schools. He attended both Johan Fredrik Eckersberg’s private art school from 1869 to 1870 and later the drawing class of Julius Middelthun, the Norwegian sculptor, at the Royal School of Art and Design of Christiana (Oslo).

Braiding her Hair by Christian Krohg (1888)

On April 13th 1873, during his university studies, Christian’s father Georg died, aged fifty-six. The following year, at the end of his five year law course, he attained a law degree but instead of practicing law he decided to travel to Germany with his friend and fellow artist, Eilif Peterssen and they both enrolled at the Baden School of Art in Karlsruhe, where two of his professors were Karl Gussow, the German Realist painter, and Hans Gude, the Norwegian Romanticist painter and one of Norway’s foremost landscape painters. Gude spent most of his adult life as a professor of art and was a leading figure in the advancement of Norwegian art. To young, aspiring Norwegian artists of the mid and late nineteenth century, Gude was a god and they would travel to Germany to enrol on courses taught by him at academies in Dusseldorf, Berlin and Karlsruhe.

Georg Brandes – sketch by P S Krøyer (1900)

Christian Krohg remained at the Baden School of Art in Karlsruhe for a year before moving on to the Berlin Academy in 1875, a move that had already been made by his former professor, Karl Gussow. Krohg remained in Berlin for three years. Whilst there he made friends with the German symbolist painter, Max Klinger and the Danish writer and philosopher, Georg Brandes.   Brandes writings were centered on the concept of realism and were diametrically opposed to the world of fantasy in literature. He was looked upon as the founder of the Cultural Radicalism movement. According to Aarhus Universitet’s Institut for Kultur og Samfund, Cultural Radicalism can be looked upon as:

“…Cultural radicalism must be understood from its cultural and philosophical origins in the modern breakthrough in the last half of the 19th century, as well as from the actual roots of rationalism of enlightenment. In Denmark, cultural radicalism has rooted in the bourgeois radicalism of the 1870s and in the intellectual environment around the brothers Georg and Edvard Brandes and Viggo Hørup. The bourgeois radical ideas constituted a cultural battle against the authority of the church and the state, and they concerned in particular the right to individual expression, freedom of opinion and tolerance, and criticism of what was considered to be a restricted, oppressive and colorless civil culture…”

Charles Lundh in Conversation with Christian Krohg by Christian Krohg (1883)
Charles Lundh, a Norwegian painter, lived together with Christian Krohg and the Swedish painters Johan Krouthén and Oscar Björck in a house in Skagen in 1883

Krohg was very attentive to the views of Brandes and became more aware of the social and political problems of the time. These views were enhanced by the poor quality of his living standards during his time in Berlin, which almost bordered on out and out poverty   More importantly for Krohg it was his friendship with Georg Brandes that led to him being introduced to Emile Zola, the great French writer, playwright and journalist.  Zola was interested in the world of art and as a journalist in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, he produced many newspaper articles defending the art of Cézanne, Manet, and the emerging Impressionists, such as Monet, Renoir and Degas, all of whom were being criticised by the artistic elite. It was also Zola who first coined the term Naturalism, defining it as a literary movement, which gave emphasis to observation and the methodology used in the fictional portrayal of reality.

Farewell by Christian Krohg

It was in the following year, 1876, that Krohg exhibited his painting entitled A Farewell. For the time he concentrated on his portraiture and two works of note was his 1876 portrait of Lucy Eyeberg and his depiction of his friend Georg Brandes which he completed in 1879

The year 1879 was of great importance to Christian Krohg as it was during that summer that he first went to Skagen, a Danish fishing community on the north coast of Jutland. Christian and his fellow Norwegian painter and former fellow student in Karlsruhe, Frits Thaulow, travelled to Skagen in Thaulow’s small sailboat and remained there through to the end of autumn. Skagen had become a summer meeting place for artists in the late 1870’s and remained such up until the end of the nineteenth century.

Dining room in Brøndums Hotel (ca. 1891) showing some of the group and the panel of their portraits

It was because of its favourable natural light that it was so popular with the plein-air artists from Scandinavia, such as husband and wife artists, Anna and Michael Ancher, Peder Severin Krøyer and his wife Marie, Karl Madsen and Viggo Johansen, as well as painters from northern Europe.  It was this fascination with the changing natural light that had also inspired the Impressionists. Many of the Skagen artists had spent time in Paris and they were influenced by the French Barbizon artists and the world of Realism. This style of painting was contrary to the inflexible conventions set out by academies such as The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, which believed students should adhere to painting in the favoured Academic styles of Historicism and Neoclassicism. Michael Ancher, Karl Madsen and Viggo Johansen had also studied at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen.

Ane Gaihede by Christian Krohg (1888)

The early members of the Skagen artistic community had been befriended by Brøndum family, who were the owners of a local shop/bar and soon it became the meeting place for the Skagen painters and their literary friends. Peder Severin Krøyer became very friendly with the Brøndum’s fifteen-year-old daughter Marie and six years later the pair were married.

Woman cutting bread by Christian Krohg (1879)

Christian Krogh became a regular summer visitor to Skagen during the mid and late 1880’s and it was during those times that he focused on one family, the Gaihede family, for the subject of many of his works. Husband and wife, Niels and Ana Gaihede, along with their son Rasmus and daughter-in-law, Tine and their two children Ane and Sofus. One such painting featured the matriarch of the family Ana Gaihede who modelled for Krohg’s 1879 painting Woman Cutting Bread. Sixty-six year old Ana is seen in three-quarter length profile against a blank background, save for three small pictures, which allows us to focus completely on the subject of the work. It is a fascinating depiction, which gives us an insight into the people and their culture of the time.

The Net Mender by Christian Krohg

In another of Krohg’s works featuring the Gaihede family, The Net Mender, we see both Ana and her husband Niels depicted. In this 1880 work Niels can be seen repairing his fishing net whilst Ana sits stony-faced in the background making balls of fibre, which will be used in the repairing of the net. The walls of their home are a dull grey and the only thing breaking up the monotony of the colour are a few magazine pictures of animals and boats which may have been for the benefit of Sofus their six-year-old grandson. Looking at the interior furnishings of the home and the dress of the two characters one can detect a frugal standard of living, maybe not poverty-stricken but one in which every krone counts.

Niels Gaihede by Christian Krohg (1888)

Christian Krohg won a state stipend in 1881 and travelled to Paris, where he taught at an art school for women. In those days most of the prestigious art establishments denied women access to art tuition and Krohg could see the error of this dictate and wanted to be supportive of the female cause. Maybe Krohg was sympathetic with regards the plight of women in general as it is known that at about this time he was also becoming more and more interested in painting pictures which highlighted people’s struggle with everyday life and especially the great effort women had to make just to survive.

The Sick Girl by Christian Krohg (1881)

In 1881 he completed a very poignant painting entitled The Sick Girl. It was the depiction of a girl who had been struck down by tuberculosis and was dying. Krohg would be painfully aware that this killer disease had also taken his youngest sister, Nanna, thirteen years earlier. It is a haunting depiction. The girl sits upright in a wooden chair with a cushioned back. A thick woollen blanket covers the lower part of her body. Look at the girl’s tight-lipped facial expression. It is a mixture of sadness and fear. Maybe she is aware that her life is ebbing away. Her hands are tightly clasped together, as if in prayer, as she clutches the stem of a pale pink rose, the leaves and petals of which are starting to fall to the ground. The rose like the girl is dying.  One cannot help but be moved by such a depiction.

Babord litt (Port side) by Christian Krohg (1879)

During his time in the French capital he became influenced by the works of Édouard Manet and his modern scenes, which were often controversial. Even now, Manet is looked upon as the father of modernism. During his stay in Paris Krohg had two of his works accepted for the 1882 Salon. One of which was entitled Port Side, which he had started whilst living in Berlin but did not complete until 1879 whilst living in Skagen. It is a depiction of great detail. Look how Krohg has portrayed the clothes worn by the seaman. They have been well worn and impregnated with oil and dirt. They are old and have had to be patched and these details, along with the backdrop of the rough seas, add to the atmospheric mood of the work and we can sense how the bow of the vessel is about to dive headlong into the unforgiving swell.

Girl with a Rake by Jules Breton (1859)

During his stay in Paris Krohg had been very interested in the works of the leading French Social Realist painters of the time, Jules Breton, who was known for his depictions of peasant themes, Jules Bastien-Lepage, a painter noted for his sentimental naturalistic paintings of rural life and Léon Lhermitte, whose main theme for his paintings was also rural scenes depicting peasants at work.

Sovende mor med barn (Sleeping mother with child) by Christian Krohg (1883)

Krohg’s developing interest was the plight of women and their everyday trials and tribulations, which had to be overcome just to survive. Tiredness is one of the greatest afflictions that beset mothers with small children and Krohg’s 1883 painting Mother and Child highlights this perfectly. The work is housed in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.

Trett (Tired) by Christian Krohg (1885)

Again exhaustion features in his 1885 work simply entitled, Tired, which shows a young woman who has fallen asleep during working on her sewing machine.

In the second part of the blog about Christian Krohg and his family I will be looking at his fascination with and his depiction of “fallen women” and how it got himself into trouble with the authorities.  I will also look at the life of his wife, Oda, and his unusual and sometimes turbulent marriage.

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The Skagen Painters – Part 1: Mr and Mrs Ancher

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, Denmark
Skagen, Denmark

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. 

Will he round the point ? by Michael Ancher (c.1879)
Will he round the point ?
by Michael Ancher (c.1879)

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. 

The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes by Michael Ancher (1883)
The Lifeboat is Taken through the Dunes by Michael Ancher (1883)

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 Drowned  by Michael Ancher (1896)
The Drowned
by Michael Ancher (1896)

The final work by Michael Ancher featuring the heroism of the Skagen fishermen was completed in 1896 and entitled The Drowned FishermanThe 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.

Sunlight in the Blue Room by Anna Ancher (1891)
Sunlight in the Blue Room by Anna Ancher (1891)

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. 

Grief by Anna Ancher (1902)
Grief by Anna Ancher (1902)

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? 

Mrs Ane Brøndum in the Blue Room by Anna Ancher (1913)In 1913 Anna painted two portraits of her mother who was then 87 years old.  They are very intimate depictions of her elderly mother, and completed just three years before she died. 

Portrait of Anna Hedwig Brondum by Anna Ancher (1913)
Portrait of Anna Hedwig Brondum by Anna Ancher (1913)

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.