The Light that Inspired the Skagen Painters

Skagen is a village in the northernmost part of Denmark.

From the late 1870s until the turn of the century, a group of Scandinavian artists descended on Skagen every summer.

It was the light that drew them.

A translucent light that merged the sea and the sky—especially during the evening “blue hour”.

Influenced by the “en plein air” techniques of French Impressionist painters like Claude Monet, they broke away from traditions taught at the academies and developed their own unique styles.

The long beaches stretched for miles and miles …

Listen to Claude Debussy’s haunting Clair de Lune as we travel back in time to late 19th-century Skagen through the eyes of the Skagen Painters.

Summer Evening at Skagen Beach by P.S. Krøyer, 1899
Summer Evening at Skagen Beach by P.S. Krøyer, 1899
Summer Evening on Skagen's Southern Beach by P.S. Krøyer, 1893
Summer Evening on Skagen’s Southern Beach by P.S. Krøyer, 1893
Nor moon nor stars were out.
They did not dare to tread so soon about,
Though trembling, in the footsteps of the sun.
The light was neither night’s nor day’s, but one
Which, life-like, had a beauty in its doubt;
And Silence’s impassioned breathings round
Seemed wandering into sound.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, A Sea-Side Walk
Summer evening at the South Beach, Skagen by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1893
Summer evening at the South Beach, Skagen by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1893
Skagen by Michael Peter Ancher, c.1900
Skagen by Michael Peter Ancher, c.1900
Summer evening on the south Beach of Skagen by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1897
Summer evening on the south Beach of Skagen by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1897
The Skagen Beach by Oscar Gustaf Bjorck, 1882
The Skagen Beach by Oscar Gustaf Bjorck, 1882
Summer Day at Skagen South Beach by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1884
Summer Day at Skagen South Beach by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1884
Boat at Skagen's South Beach by Oscar Gustaf Bjorck, 1884
Boat at Skagen’s South Beach by Oscar Gustaf Bjorck, 1884
I have loved hours at sea, gray cities,
The fragile secret of a flower,
Music, the making of a poem
That gave me heaven for an hour
Sara Teasdale, I Have Loved Hours At Sea
A Stroll on the Beach by Michael Ancher, 1896
A Stroll on the Beach by Michael Ancher, 1896

Rendering light with paint in such a way that it makes you feel you are there and you need to squint at the sun’s reflections on the water.

Artists on the Beach by Peder Severin Kroyer, 1882
Artists on the Beach by Peder Severin Kroyer, 1882
The North Sea in Stormy Weather. After Sunset by Laurits Tuxen, 1909
The North Sea in Stormy Weather. After Sunset by Laurits Tuxen, 1909

One of the shared interests of the Skagen painters was to paint scenes of their own social gatherings—eating together, celebrating, or playing cards.

At Lunch by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1883
At Lunch by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1883

As if you could reach out and touch them, Krøyer’s characters are full of movement, full of life.

A breakfast. The artist, his wife and the writer Otto Benzon by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1893
A breakfast. The artist, his wife and the writer Otto Benzon by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1893

The group gathered together regularly at the Brøndums Inn in Skagen, which still operates as a hotel today.

Filled with the paintings the artists donated to cover the cost of board and lodging, the Brøndums’ dining-room became the center of their social life.

The dining room from Branden's hotel, Skagen Museum. Credit Bengt Oberger
The dining room from Branden’s hotel, Skagen Museum. Credit Bengt Oberger

Can you feel the excitement in the air and hear the clinking of glasses?

Hip, Hip, Hurrah! by P.S. Krøyer, 1888
Hip, Hip, Hurrah! by P.S. Krøyer, 1888
The Actor's Lunch, Skagen by Michael Peter Ancher, 1902
The Actor’s Lunch, Skagen by Michael Peter Ancher, 1902
An Artists' Gathering by Viggo Johansen, 1903
An Artists’ Gathering by Viggo Johansen, 1903

Deep in concentration, an after-dinner game of cards continues into the small hours.

A game of l'hombre in Brøndums Hotel by Anna Palm de Rosa, 1885
A game of l’hombre in Brøndums Hotel by Anna Palm de Rosa, 1885

Many of the Skagen painters are depicted here enjoying Midsummer Eve celebrations on Skagen beach around a bonfire, traditionally lit to ward off evil spirits believed to roam freely when the sun turned southward again.

The painting includes Peder Severin Krøyer’s daughter Vibeke, mayor Otto Schwartz and his wife Alba Schwartz, Michael Ancher, Degn Brøndum, Anna Ancher, Holger Drachmann and his 3rd wife Soffi, the Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén and Marie Krøyer.

Midsummer Eve bonfire on Skagen's beach by P.S. Krøyer, 1906
Midsummer Eve bonfire on Skagen’s beach by P.S. Krøyer, 1906

Anna Ancher was the only one of the Skagen Painters to be born and grow up in Skagen.

Her father owned the Brøndums Hotel where the artists stayed during the summer months and she married Michael Ancher, one of the first members of the Skagen colony of artists.

Expressing a more truthful depiction of reality and everyday life, she was a pioneer in observing the interplay of color and natural light.

Harvesters by Anna Ancher, 1905
Harvesters by Anna Ancher, 1905
Harvest Time by Anna Ancher, 1901
Harvest Time by Anna Ancher, 1901
Sewing Fisherman's Wife by Anna Ancher, 1890
Sewing Fisherman’s Wife by Anna Ancher, 1890
They love the sea,
Men who ride on it
And know they will die
Under the salt of it
Carl Sandburg, Young Sea

Combining realism and classical composition, Michael Ancher painted heroic fishermen and their experiences at sea.

Becoming known as monumental figurative art, his strict training at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts was tempered by his wife Anna’s more naturalistic approach.

Painted in 1885, Michael Ancher’s ‘Will He Round the Point?” (below) earned him and the Skagen colony particular attention since it was sold to King Christian IX of Denmark.

Will He Round the Point by Michael Ancher, 1885
Will He Round the Point by Michael Ancher, 1885
Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
The Boat is Set in the Sea by Oscar Björck, 1885
The Boat is Set in the Sea by Oscar Björck, 1885
The lifeboat is driven through the dunes by Michael Ancher, 1883
The lifeboat is driven through the dunes by Michael Ancher, 1883
Fishermen on the Beach on a Quiet Summer Evening by Michael Ancher, 1888
Fishermen on the Beach on a Quiet Summer Evening by Michael Ancher, 1888

Life was hard.

A fisherman’s life was not an easy one.

Better to die surrounded by people who would give their life for you.

That’s what close-knit communities were made of.

The Drowned Fisherman by Michael Peter Ancher, 1896
The Drowned Fisherman by Michael Peter Ancher, 1896
Fishermen at Skagen by Peder Severin Kroyer, 1894
Fishermen at Skagen by Peder Severin Kroyer, 1894
Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with that there is Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Fishermen on the Beach at Skagen byPeder Severin Kroyer, 1891
Fishermen on the Beach at Skagen byPeder Severin Kroyer, 1891

The Skagen artists also painted each other and their children going about everyday aspects of life—collecting flowers, walking the dog, reading in the shade of the garden or inside the house, meal times with the children, and saying prayers before bed.

Anna Ancher returning from the field by Michael Ancher, 1901
Anna Ancher returning from the field by Michael Ancher, 1901
Portrait of my wife. The painter Anna Ancher by Michael Ancher, 1883
Portrait of my wife. The painter Anna Ancher by Michael Ancher, 1883
Summer Evening at Skagen. The Artist's Wife and Dog by the Shore by P.S. Krøyer, 1892
Summer Evening at Skagen. The Artist’s Wife and Dog by the Shore by P.S. Krøyer, 1892
Roses by P.S. Krøyer, 1893
Roses by P.S. Krøyer, 1893
Interior with poppies and a woman reading by Anna Ancher, 1905
Interior with poppies and a woman reading by Anna Ancher, 1905
Living room with light blue curtains and blue Clematis, 1913
Living room with light blue curtains and blue Clematis, 1913
Midday Meal in the Garden by Anna Ancher, 1915
Midday Meal in the Garden by Anna Ancher, 1915
The Benzon daughters by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1897
The Benzon daughters by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1897
Evening Prayer by Anna Ancher, 1888
Evening Prayer by Anna Ancher, 1888

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