Anna Ancher was one of the first major Danish women artists to be written into the national Danish art history by her contemporaries. She received recognition early in her career amongst her male colleagues in the radical Skagen artist colony in the north of Jutland. Following an exhibition of her paintings in Hannover in 1994, she is today acknowledged as one of the finest representatives of the modern breakthrough in Nordic art of the 1880's.
By Elisabeth Fabritius

Anna Ancher
Full name: Ancher, Anna Kirstine
Born: 18.8.1859 in Skagen, northern Jutland, †15.4.1935 also in Skagen.
Parents: Erik Brøndum (1820-90), proprietor of an inn and grocery, and Ane Hedvig Møller (1826-1916).
Married: 18.8.1880 to painter ◊Michael A., born 9.6.1849 on the island of Bornholm. Died: 19.9.1927 in Skagen, s. of merchant Hans Michael A. and Ellen Elisabeth Munch.
Children: Helga (1883).
Anna Ancher was only 20 years old, when she made her public debut at the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition in Copenhagen. Her work received a positive reception from the serious reviewers of the day. When just 25 years old she was one of three women to be included in ◊Sigurd Müller’s survey of recent Danish painting, Nyere dansk Malerkunst (1884), in which attention was drawn to her autonomous way of seeing and to her fine painterly awareness, which was designated robust and manly.

Humble background

Anna Ancher grew up in Skagen, an isolated and poor fishing village with no road or rail connections to the rest of the country; the village was virtually unknown in the wider world until the 1880s when it became famous as the gathering place for Nordic advocates of en plein air painting. Being the daughter of the local inn-keeper, however, she came into contact with visitors of every profession, public officials, commercial travellers and artists. During her childhood, Danish and Norwegian marine painters occasionally arrived by coach or ship and worked in Skagen for a while; when she was a young teenager she would, on the sly, study the works the painters hung out to dry.

Showing a talent for painting

She received a conventional upbringing, and her fascination with pictorial art, which was obvious from an early age, was not opposed by her family, the intellectual force of which was her gifted mother who was herself interested in both literature and religion. The family acknowledged that her only area of expertise was in the use of brush and paint, and so she was exempt duties in the kitchen at the inn, which were taken care of by her mother along with two of her sisters. Anna was still only a teenager when, in 1874, the man who was to be her future husband, Michael Ancher, first visited Skagen accompanied by the upcoming critic and first director of Skagen’s Museum Karl Madsen. Along with the painter Viggo Johansen, they recognized her talent and encouraged her to take a professional training.

Painting school for women

During the winters of 1875-78, Anna Ancher attended ◊Vilhelm Kyhn's private painting school for women in Copenhagen, while also receiving guidance from her fiancé who had a very high opinion of her talent – an expression of respect that was unusual for the times. In 1879 she saw modern French paintings exhibited in Copenhagen, and that same year, in Skagen, she was greatly inspired by three painters who employed the new French principles of depicting reality as it was, without embellishing it, and of working directly with the motif: Karl Madsen and the Norwegians F. Thaulow and C. Krohg, the latter two going on to become leading figures in what is known as the "modern breakthrough" in Nordic painting.

The modern breakthrough in Nordic art

Early drawings show that, from the very outset, Anna Ancher had a feeling for people, a sensibility that also characterised her first, often humorous depictions of the old Stine Bollerhus, which are kept in the traditional dark tones. Syende ung Pige [Young Girl Sewing] and, her first exhibit at the Charlottenlund Spring Exhibition, En gammel Mand som snitter en Pind [An Old Man Whittling a Stick], 1879-80, are the earliest evidence that she went along with the new revolutionary approach. The stream of painters seeking out Skagen’s harsh nature and uncontrived models increased, and at the beginning of the 1880s the long awaited "modern breakthrough" in painting occurred through the reciprocal inspiration linking Danish and other Nordic artists.

Paintings of light and colour

Anna Ancher took an active role in this movement, and her paintings compelled the admiration and respect of her male colleagues: works such as To gamle, der plukker Maager [Two Old People Plucking Gulls], exhibited 1883, En blind Kone i sin Stue [A Blind Woman in Her Room], 1883, Pigen i Køkkenet [Girl in the Kitchen], 1883-86, and Solskin i den Blindes Stue [Sunshine in the Blind Woman’s Room], 1885. Thereafter, light and colour were the key elements of form in her works. This can also be seen in her pastels, and in the large collection of oil sketches that was re-discovered in 1990 and, having undergone restoration work, exhibited in the museum Michael og Anna Anchers Hus [Michael and Anna Ancher’s House] in Skagen and then shown for an international audience at the major Anna Ancher exhibition in Hannover, 1994.

Depicting local women and children

Anna Ancher also developed her own independent figurative art, her models coming from the Skagen fishing community. With feeling and empathy, and never indulging in sentimentality, she most often depicted the local women, young and old, and she was also an excellent observer of the children. Brilliant examples of her pastels include Kirsten Jenne med en Blomst [Kirsten Jenne with Flower], and her grandmother Kirsten Møller hvilende [Kirsten Møller Resting], c.1890; her oil paintings include the numerous mealtimes, and the girl sewing, seen against a sunlit wall; mention must also be made of the many portraits of her mother when advanced in years, painted in the blue or the red room, which can be read as images of old age itself.

Wife and artist

Marriage in 1880 and motherhood in 1883 did not put a stop to Anna Ancher’s development as an artist. Despite her husband’s persistent appeal for industrious application, she asserted her independence in a non-dramatic fashion by making her own decisions as to motif and tempo. Only occasionally was she tempted to embark on compositions of a more complex make-up: for example, Et Missionsmøde [Evangelical Meeting] in 1903. People from all walks of life were welcomed into the hospitable home she shared with her husband: artist friends, fisher folk, royalty and people of radical or religious bent alike.

The acclaim she received at the numerous Scandinavian and international exhibitions in which she participated did not affect her down-to-earth nature, even when she was nominated to Kunstakademiets Plenarforsamling [the Plenary Assembly of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts] from 1904, or was recipient of the distinguished awards Ingenio et arti 1913 and Tagea Brandts Rejselegat 1924. Anna Ancher’s paintings are considered major works in the annals of Danish art. Unlike other painters from the Skagen artist colony, her work has never tired in the eyes of the public; on the contrary, she has often been pointed up at the expense of other artists. In 1967, the house in Skagen she shared with her husband was opened as a museum.