Personal highlights from Skagens Museum (Art Galley of the Skagen Painters)

Most famous amongst the artist colonies of Danish art history are the Skagen (/skayun/) painters. This group pioneered a move to where the light was special, like artists in Cornwall or the first film makers of California. Skagen sits on the northernmost tip of Denmark. A sandspit protruding into where the North and Baltic Seas merge, a fishing village far removed from the industrialising cities of the late 1800s. The Skagen painters consisted mostly of Danes as well as a couple of Norwegians and Swedes. Poets, dramatists and other artists also visited and mixed with the painters in their projects and social activities.

The gradual migration of artists to Skagen was initially triggered by artists’ increasing disillusionment with the entrenched, neoclassical regimes at the Royal art academies of Denmark and Sweden, combined with the artists' exposure to naturalism and impressionism from Southern Europe, with the French impressionists in particular influencing meatier, warmer, more painterly brushstrokes. However, a cursory glance around Skagens Art Museum places most of the most noteworthy works at the naturalist end of the spectrum. Monet or later Turner levels of looseness are not to be found, although the brighter palettes of the impressionists linger. Gone are stylised, posturing generals on horseback or implausibly composed, drab scenes of Christian saints and sinners sponsored by church or state patrons.

In the majority of paintings from Skagen, we find the common man, woman and their children, their earthy, cottage existences lived at the mercy of the seas, seasons and shifting sands. The passage of life fully rendered from celebratory summer solstice beach fires (Sankt Hans) to mourning wives hovering over their recently drowned fisherman husbands. Occasionally interspersed amongst the scenes of daily life, are portraits of a well-heeled artist friend or businessman of the time. The grander commissions of the Skagen painter group are largely absent from the Skagens Museum collection.

The works on display show a collection from the best known artists considered core to the group as well as a few pieces by lesser known artists. The changing exhibition space highlighted the works of Johannes Wilhelm on my visit. Most critics consider P.S. Krøyer to be the best painter and core Skagen painters group member with the main, other notable artists including his wife Marie Krøyer, Anna and Michael Ancher, Holger Drachmann, Karl Madsen, Carl Locher, Viggo Johansen and Thorvald Niss, Oscar Björck, Johan Krouthén from Sweden, Eilif Peterssen and Christian Krohg.

Peder Severin and Marie Krøjer’s increasingly strained relationship, that of “the most beautiful woman in Denmark” married to Denmark’s celebrity artist, 16 years her senior, gradually losing the fight to hereditary and syphilis-induced madness, is depicted in the somewhat fictionalised film Marie Krøyer.

Worth highlighting in her own right is Anna Ancher who was the only Skagen native -a ‘Skagbo’- amongst the painters. She resisted the prevailing sentiment at the time that women should retire their profession for family life by continuing to paint throughout her life. Her works often focus on interiors, family and faith.

Here are a few pieces which put their hook in me…

P.S. Krøyer. Skt Hansblus på Skagen (Midsummer Eve bonfire on Skagen's beach) (1894), oil on canvas.

The light from the bonfire (made then from stacked barrels) as well as the crowd’s expressions caught my attention in this, the last of Krøyer’s large crowd pieces.

skagen painters
Midsummer Eve bonfire on Skagen's beach

The artist’s friends and the local bourgeoisie are perhaps tellingly depicted in the light and smiling on the left, whilst the locals in the picture appear somewhat darker and sterner on the right. The lady in the flowered straw hat ‘breaks the fourth wall’ and looks directly at the painter/viewer out of the picture – something I haven’t seen done in a crowd painting before.

Fellas in yellow bringing home the fishy bacon

P.S. Krøyer - Fiskere trækker vod på Skagen Nordstrand. Sildig eftermiddag (Fishermen hauling a net at the North Beach. Late afternoon) – 1883, oil on canvas

It was the extraordinary rendering of late afternoon light that caught my eye with this one. The yellows of the clothing are allowed to ‘pop’ relative to the muted reds and blues of the beach and sea. The sand perfectly reflects our expectation of warmer highlights in the path of the setting sun with long, cool shadows. Well tasty! The thrashing, splashing fish are depicted with energetic dashes from a brush, contrasting the steady heaving poses of the fishermen.

Fishermen Krøyer
A masterclass in sunset sand tones

Krøyer fishermen pulling net
Barely a single fish is visible explicitly as they give way to a frenzy of lively brushstrokes

Oscar Björk - Båden sættes i søen. Skagen - Launching the Boat. Skagen – 1884, oil on canvas

Oscar Björk Fishermen
Oscar Björk - Launching the Boat. Skagen

Björk was the Swede who spent the most time in Skagen, enjoying his time there working under the influence of Krøyer and the French naturalists. This beauty, with the local again fishermen as the subject, demonstrates masterful value observation as well as bold brushstrokes in non-focal areas to generate dynamism and interest without distracting from the more faithfully painted faces. Particularly juicy are the chunky strokes used to render the beach, and like Krøjer, heavy white strokes laden with paint to catch the eye where the waves break.

bold brush strokes
A patch of seaweed perhaps? The paint splodges resolve themselves as one stands further back from the painting

Launching the Boat. Skagen detail
Breaking waves laid down with bold brushstrokes

This technique, done with oils, will help light areas stand out on paintings hung indoors where different lamps and the passing of the sun through the window will encourage more impasto applied areas jump out to the viewer.

Johannes Wilhjelm, Kunstnerens hustru i stuen på Gl. Kongevej, København. (Artist’s wife in the lounge on Gl. Kongevej, København - After 1911.

Johannes Wilhjelm wife
Wilhjelm's wife, the dorsally gifted curtain twitcher

Wihjelm was one of the “associated artists” who stayed less frequently in Skagen and whose paintings also extend to grand vistas in Italy executed in a tighter, more classical style. Here we see Wihjelm’s wife in an expectant pose peering out the window - at what? The kids? The neighbours in Copenhagen? Johannes coming home with Danish pastries from the bakery? I particularly like the warm, muted tones of Copenhagen in the background contrasting with the cool, loosely painted interior, the clipped paintings on the right suggesting a larger room which we are enjoying an intimate corner of, and Mrs. Wilhjelm’s bottom. What a peach. Go home Kim Kardashian.

OK, last one… The only picture I came across which suggested more than surface level emotion, commentary or symbolism was this one by Anna Ancher called simply "Sørg" (Grief). Insipired she recalled, as a dream during an artist’s block, she went to work on the piece the next day. Her mother is the model for the woman on the right, whilst the nude woman on the left has variously been interpreted as praying, pleading or mourning. Anna was said to have experienced some difficulty reconciling a relatively liberal artist’s life with her strong faith and the piety and service expected from a life on that path.

Anna Ancher, Sørg
Anna Ancher, Grief, 1902

Whilst reading around Anna’s life, I came across this wonder of an interior, called Pigen I Køkkenet (the girl in the kitchen) from 1886. For me, it doesn’t get much better than the light on those curtains, also reflected on the wall, combined with the muted tones of the other coloured objects around the kitchen. This picture is in the Hirschsprungske collection in Copenhagen which I had no idea existed, so I happily tripped over my next trip in finding this gem.

Pigen i Køkkenet
The Girl in The KItchen making food prep look relaxing

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