Skagen, Denmark : Land of Light and Art

Skagen (pronounced “Skayen”) is the second-largest fishing port in Denmark and the home of a striking school of painting, only recently commanding impressive prices at auctions across Europe.

Carla Pohli - President, ArtRatio

Carla Pohli - President, ArtRatio

Skagen’s Magical Light

Map-of-Denmark

Situated at the top of Denmark, is the small town of Skagen. A picturesque place with a lot of light and endless views.

Skagen, meaning “narrow promontory’, is a shape-shifting place. There’s always a magical charged quality to nature in this environment, and anybody who has been to Skagen always talks about the light.

Why would this light be any different from the light experienced at other coastlines?

Skagen is a confluence of land, sea and sky where the green of the Kattegat meets the rougher, blue Skagerrak. The latter is an extension of the North Sea, and Kattegat, the strait between Sweden and Denmark, is an extension of the western Baltic. Skagen itself is where these two bodies of water meet.

A must in every lifetime, Danes know Skagen for the tip, the point of land called Grenen, and every Dane wants to experience where the waters collide, spanning both seas by placing one foot in each.

This northernmost tip of mainland Europe is a sandy, moorland landscape of translucent, luminous light, which turns a magical cerulean at twilight when the sea and sky merge – a natural phenomenon known as “the Blue Hour”.  

As a result, the town has been a source of inspiration for artists for many years. In particular, the group of painters known today as the Skagen Painters, who found this to be a safe haven where they could express themselves freely.

The Light that Inspired the Skagen Painters

Rugged and wild, Skagen attracted painters with its stark beauty, local fishing culture, and striking, ever-changing light.

From the late 1870s until the turn of the century, a group of artists descended on Skagen every summer, drawn by the light and the long beaches stretching for miles and miles. One Skagen painter said, “Where two seas meet, the light can’t help but be the bluest in creation.” A translucent light that merged the sea and the sky—especially during the evening “blue hour”.

The Artists

At the end of the 19th century, Skagen was a small town of roughly 2000 inhabitants. It was difficult to get to, with no harbour before1907 and no railway line until 1890. Despite this, it was during this period that Skagen became the centre of one of the most famous artist colonies in Scandinavia.

Painters first began coming to Skagen in the 1870s, and an artists’ colony soon emerged that lasted until the early 20th century. Painters such as Marie and P.S. Krøyer, Anna and Michael Ancher, Laurits Tuxen, Christian Krohg, Oscar Björck, and others from Denmark and neighbouring Scandinavian countries returned again and again to Skagen, forming a close-knit artistic community over the years.

Anna Ancher was the only painter born in Skagen. Her father owned the Brøndum’s 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 an honest depiction of reality and everyday life, Anna was a pioneer in observing the interplay of colour and natural light.

Girl_in_the_Kitchen_Anna_Ancher

It was generally the young, less established artists who made the journey to the tip of Jutland. The first artists who came at the beginning of the 1870s had met at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and recommended the town to one another. There was an abundance of plein air motifs in Skagen, a local population willing to model for a small fee, and social and professional fellowship – a major factor for many artists. The colony was part of an international phenomenon. Artists came from other countries, and there were artist colonies in other places in Europe, Russia, and North America.

Skagen was also visited by authors, composers, musicians, singers, craftspeople, and actors, several of whom were among the most prominent cultural personalities of the era in Denmark and Scandinavia. 

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) wrote much of “Out of Africa” while staying at Brøndum’s Hotel, in the dining room distinguished by a number of old paintings given by artists in exchange for lodging.

Krøyer fiskere trækker vod

The Artistic Style

The style of the Skagen artists challenged the then rigid traditions of the Scandinavian fine arts academies. Karl Madsen and Michael Ancher left the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, wanting to experiment with a more modern style of painting popular at the time. To be more representative of everyday life. 

This was the initial reason why the artists chose the small town of Skagen, instead of a bigger city. Here, the painters were able to experiment with style and execute their art without any restrictions.

Skagen painters commonly used hasty and dense brushstrokes. They were Influenced by the “en plein air” techniques of French Impressionist painters, and, breaking away from traditions taught at the academies, they developed their own unique styles, rendering light with paint in such a way to make you feel you are there, squinting at the sun’s reflections on the water. Krøyer’s characters are full of movement and life, as if you could reach out and touch them

The Skagen artists painted each other going about everyday aspects of life—their children, collecting flowers, walking the dog, reading in the garden or inside the house, meal times with the children etc. The everyday life of the villagers as well as their own was their biggest source of inspiration, with paintings depicting scenes of fishermen fishing, women sewing, people eating and praying. They made many portraits of each other, being a close knit group.

No doubt there was the added benefit of Hygge – a vital Danish custom involving slowing down and enjoying life’s simple pleasures.

Michael_Ancher_-_Pigerne_på_stranden._Søstrene_Holst_på_Skagen_Sønderstrand_-_1896

Skagen’s Museum

Many of the scenes captured on canvas can be seen at Skagen’s Museum which houses more than 1,800 works by the Skagen painters.

Brøndums Hotel’s dining room eventually filled with the paintings the artists exchanged for their stays, and it was in this dining room that the museum was founded on October 20,1908.

The new museum building, with a bigger space and better conditions , opened on September 22, 1928. The iconic dining room of the Hotel, where the painters once assembled, ate and played games together, was transferred to the new building. 

Because of its historic and symbolic importance, the room is still protected and kept intact just as it was at the turn of the 20th century.

You will always find a hushed buzz within the museum’s skylighted galleries. Gazing on works by the Anchers, Krøyer, Holger Drachmann, Karl Madsen and Carl Locher, you get a moving portrait not only of this harsh and beautiful land, but of the close-knit colony it inspired between the 1870s and 1930s.

On the back wall, is Krøyer’s 1893 painting of his wife and Anna Ancher, in flowing dresses and wide bonnets, strolling the beach at the blue hour. Suffused with the famous Skagen light.

The Krøyer painting was given to the museum by the widow of the German publishing baron Axel Springer. It was part of an important cultural exhibit, “Scandinavia Today,” that toured the United States a few years back and helped launch the Skagen revival. “

Krøyer_-_Summer_evening_on_Skagen's_Beach._Anna_Ancher_and_Marie_Krøyer_walking_together

‘Summer evening on Skagen Sønderstrand’ is one of Peder Severin Krøyer’s best known paintings and one of the most popular paintings in the collection.

The Skagen Painters’ collection totals about 9000 works.

Skagen and its inviting light are best seen from May into September

For more information about Skagens Museum, Anchers Hus, and Drachmanns Hus, visit the museum’s website: www.skagensmuseum.dk. For general tourist information about Skagen, see www.toppenafdanmark.com.

Film about Krøyer :  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_cv3SgkoQQ

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