Anna Ancher is famous in Scandinavia, but basically unknown in the rest of the world. Which is a shame because we always need more discussion on awesome female artists in art history.
Movement/Style: Part of the Skagen artists’ colony. She’s usually associated with Naturalism, and sometimes with Realism and Impressionism.
Country: She traveled a bit around Europe, but lived, worked and died in the small town of Skagen in Denmark.
Years: 1859 – 1935
Well, who was she?
Anna Ancher (1859 – 1935) was a Danish painter active in the late 19th and early 20th century. She was part of a group of artists and other creative people who briefly lived and worked in the small fisherfolk village of Skagen in Northern Denmark, known as the Skagen colony.
In the nineteenth century, colonies like this were pretty common. Between 1830 and 1910, over three thousand artists in Europe joined the different rural artists’ colonies that were established around the continent. This was a reaction against the increasing amount of industrialization in the cities. Artists who joined colonies often wanted to reconnect with a simpler way of life. As Skagen colonist and poet Holger Drachmann put it, “…I want to return to nature, to the naïve, the original, the uncomplicated, whatever you want to call it.”
Inspired by Naturalist and Realist philosophies, which valued objectivity and authenticity, the Skagen artists wanted to paint “the truth”, which generally meant “the ugly” or “the primitive”. They painted the local fisherfolk in ways that reinforced their primitiveness (because of their lower class and remote location) with rapid brushstrokes and plein-air (open air) painting.
Anna Ancher was the only member of the Skagen colony who was born and raised in Skagen. Since artists usually only visited rural locations for a few months at a time, Anna Ancher had superior access to the local Skageners compared to her peers. The sense of intimacy that she paints her subjects with is often attributed to this.
Give me the gossip!
Anna Ancher lived a pretty drama-free life for an artist, so unfortunately there’s not much juicy gossip here. She was the daughter of the innkeeper at Brøndum’s Hotel in Skagen. When artist Michael Ancher came to Skagen to paint in 1874, he stayed at Brøndum’s and took notice of Anna, who was only fifteen at the time. The next summer they were secretly engaged. They married in 1880 and remained married throughout the rest of their lives in an apparently stable and creative marriage. The painting Judgment of a Day’s Work shows the couple sitting together and discussing a recently completed painting.
Anna seems to have been a kind and positive person, and as far as I can tell she was universally well liked.
Give me a quick selection of her art!
Girl in the Kitchen, 1886
Anna Ancher painted dozens of images like this, of women engaged in domestic tasks with their back to the viewer. It allows for a sense of voyeurism but also of intimacy as we’re allowed into quiet, private moments in the life of the subjects.
Sunlight in the Blue Room, 1891
This is one of my favourite paintings. I have a small reproduction of it on my wall, and I’ve even been to the room that it depicts (located in the old annex of Brøndums Hotel in Skagen). The subject is Helga, Ancher’s daughter. The focus, however, is not on her but on the colours and the startling patches of sunlight cast by the windows.
Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1913
Anna Ancher’s mother was one of her most frequently used and emotional motifs. Her mother, Ane Hedvig Brøndum, seems to have had a deep impact on Ancher’s life, especially due to her deep religious beliefs. Anna seems to have been constantly split between these religious beliefs and the more bohemian artists’ society.
House interior – Brøndum’s annex, 1918
Sunlight in the Blue Room can be seen as a precursor to this painting in its exploration of an interior space and its formal elements of light and colour. Several art historians view this painting as evidence of Ancher’s exploration of the abstract.
Where can I look if I want more information? (+ References)
If you’re able, I really recommend an actual trip to Skagen. You’ll have to get to Copenhagen and then drive or take the train to the Northern-most tip, but if you’re interested in the Skagen painters or enjoy Danish beach vacations it’s really great. A few of the original artist-colonists helped establish the Skagen Museum in the early 1900s and it’s still there today, with a stunning collection of the colony’s artwork. Anna and Michael Ancher’s house is still preserved and you can go inside and have a look around. When I visited, I was even lucky enough to stay in Brøndum’s Hotel, the nineteenth-century building where the original artist-colonists gathered, lived and socialized.
If going all the way to Skagen is not really a possibility, there’s some good literature that you can check out if you want to learn more:
- Malerne på Skagen by Lise Svanholm (English version: Northern Lights: The Skagen Painters)
- A World Apart: Anna Ancher and the Skagen Artist Colony Exhibition catalogue for the National Museum of Women in the Arts
- I Am Anna: Homage to Anna Ancher by Mette Bøgh Jensen
- Brøndums Dining Room: In Gratitude for Happy Days by Mette Bøgh Jensen