Ancher, Anna (1859–1935)

views updated

Ancher, Anna (1859–1935)

Danish painter of portraits and interiors, known for her masterful use of color and light. Pronunciation: AN-ker. Born Anna Kirstine Bröndum in Skagen, the northernmost village in Denmark, in 1859; died in 1935; daughter of Erik and Anna (Hedvig) Bröndum; attended public school there; studied under Professor Vilhelm Kyhn, 1875–78; studied under Pierre Puvis de Chavannes in Paris, 1888–89; married Michael Ancher (a painter), in 1880; children: Helga Ancher (a painter, b. 1883).

Made debut at the Spring Exhibition of Paintings at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen (1880); elected a member of the Copenhagen Academy (1904); house inaugurated as a museum (June 23, 1967).

"Among European painters, Anna Ancher is one of the few women of consequence," writes Walter Schwartz in his work on the village of Skagen and its importance to Nordic painting. "She is the exception to the rule that great artistic innovators are men. In Nordic painting she stands alone…. She has inspired no school of painting; her specific talent was a sense of color, an inborn gift which can as little be transferred to others as can red hair or personal charm." Schwartz is not alone in his opinion of women's contributions to painting. In Geraldine Norman 's Nineteenth-Century Painters, and Painting, published in 1977, she includes merely six women in more than 700 entries: Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot , the Norwegian Harriet Backer , and Anna Ancher. While these sources speak to the remarkably scant attention often paid to women artists, they also make Anna Ancher's mark on art history quite clear.

Anna Bröndum was born at Skagen, Denmark, in the summer of 1859. Her grandfather was considered the most influential member of the village, a political dictator who determined who would sit on the Council. Her mother had married the grocer and innkeeper Erik Bröndum and worked in the kitchen of what gradually became a nationally known hotel and, from the 1870s, a famous gathering place for artists. A mild and generous woman, the senior Anna Bröndum wore herself out but stayed by her stove until she was too old to work any longer. Her daughter describes her as:

a poetic nature and very bright, but she took on the guise of servant and strove from morning till night by the stove. She was very beautiful. Yet I remember her dressed up only once in a grey silk dress with a grey hat and red carnations. She had made a promise to God on one occasion when she feared the family would go bankrupt that if He would help, she would always work in her kitchen to His honor, and she did. First up, last to bed, dressed in the humblest of clothes, providential to the poor, she struggled on till she was eighty years old.

The children would sit around the kitchen table fighting over the light from a single candle. As they played with their toys, the boys would sometimes invite Anna's participation, but mostly they discounted their sister "who understood only colors." Throughout her life, she would draw and paint the things and people surrounding her inside and outside the hotel, rarely venturing beyond those environs.

Anna spent the winters between 1875 and 1878 in Copenhagen at the drawing academy for women directed by Vilhelm Kyhn, a landscape painter. He appears to have had little appreciation for his student's talent and offered little encouragement. As a wedding present, Kyhn would send her a set of china accompanied by a note suggesting that she go down to the beach with her painting box and all her painting equipment and set them "to sail the seas, because now, as a married woman, she would no longer want to be an artist but a housewife."

Ancher's only other formal training was a six-month stay in Paris where she studied drawing at the school of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Given that rather sporadic instruction and the fact that she was mostly self-taught, perhaps she would have become a painter no matter where she lived. It was her fate, however, to have been born at a place where painters, writers, actors, and composers gathered to visit or to set up permanent residency. They came to the small fishing village on the northernmost tip of the Jutland peninsula, surrounded by water: the North Sea to the northwest, the Skagerak to the north, and the Kattegat to the east. Then as now, Skagen gets more sunshine than anywhere else in Denmark, and the light reflected from the sea intensifies the daylight. From the time Ancher was ten years old, she could observe painters arriving in her hometown and at her parents' hotel to paint the sea and the fishing population, and to capture the unusual light and the limpid colors.

In an essay, Anna Ancher describes the arrival of the man she would marry in 1880. "In the summer [of 1874] a young, long haired painter came dragging his paint box and asking for room and board. He ate three pigeons and could have eaten more. He looked like one of the Pharaoh's lean cows. I was permitted to bring him tea and took a good look at him; he wasn't too bad. His name was Michael Ancher."

Anna made her debut as a painter at the Spring Exhibition of 1881 at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen, but before then she had already painted Lars Gaihede Whittling a Stick. Gaihede was a member of a large Skagen family and many of his relatives posed for other Skagen painters as well. Anna Ancher's painting is a close-up of the peasant concentrating on his whittling. It has a heavier, darker quality than that of her later works, which suggests a temporary influence of her husband's teachings. Even here, however, the play of light on the figure's face and hands shows the direction her painting would take. She would credit other influences, such as fellow Skagen painters Christian Krogh and P.S. Kroyer, but Ancher developed and refined an outstanding sense of color all her own, thereby becoming a pioneer of modern Danish art.

In 1884, the Anchers, with their one-year-old daughter Helga, moved into the house, which today is the best preserved artist's house in Denmark. For the first 15 years, they were relatively poor. Though Michael became known as Skagen's most authentic painter of fishermen, his works did not sell until around the turn of the century. Even so, the Anchers were generous and hospitable hosts, and their doors were open to fishermen as well as artists, local residents, and visitors. They set a modest table, but their cordial manner and helpful demeanor had no limits. Anna was spontaneous, open to life and people; Michael always put the guests ahead of himself. Understandably, their house became the image of Skagen to locals and strangers alike.

Michael and Anna Ancher were of different dispositions. Though Michael understood and respected his wife's work and admired her, he could not comprehend her artistic views and habits. He was hardworking to a fault, passionate and persistent. His daughter describes him with a paintbrush in hand from the time he got up until he went to bed, ever trying to reach the goal he had set for himself as an artist. Anna, on the other hand, painted as if in play, with a seemingly organic matter-of-factness, an unconscious absorption and enjoyment that was evident in her work. "She was like sunshine," wrote the leading painter among the Swedish contingent, Oscar Björck, who admired Anna Ancher both as a painter and as a person. "Her paintings had something which none of ours had to the same degree, a quiet devotion to the task and a coloring so mellow we enjoyed it as we would ripened fruit. She had none of our aggression. She painted slowly and surely, and we had the impression she enjoyed working that way." Anna consistently found her subject matter in things and people around her, but a seemingly casual glimpse into everyday life in a fisherman's house or a room at the hotel gains importance and significance in her rendition. Her sense of humor and strong empathy show especially in her portraits of children.

Unlike her male colleagues, Anna Ancher painted mostly indoor scenes and portraits. She loved Skagen's sun but liked it best when filtered through curtains or a row of green plants on a windowsill. Her famous The Maid in the Kitchen shows bright sunlight flooding the room through yellow curtains while a standing woman has her back to the viewer. A mellower light comes in from the side through a half-open door. As Ancher developed her style, light became the major feature of her paintings, demonstrated in the series featuring the blue room of Bröndum's Hotel, which was her mother's quarters. Sunshine in the Blue Room shows window light making shadows on the back wall. The dominating colors are blue and yellow and the entire scene is filtered through a golden mist. Between the two windows sits a little girl—Helga Ancher—whose round, blonde head is placed in the beam of sunlight, which also highlights the back of her apron.

Anna Ancher painted her mother in the same way she wrote about her, in a series suggesting an allegorical representation of the passage of life. From the earlier realistic and naturalistic portrayals to the last, the series depicting an old woman sitting in her chair suggests the development in Ancher's work as she moved toward a symbolic representation of images, a dissolution

of the weights of objects or people in favor of colors and light. The old woman sits wrapped in light, covered by a rose-colored blanket, her head resting against a white pillow, her hands folded. She gives the impression of being ready for the final journey—out of life and out of the picture. Again, the sun shining through the window makes shadows on the blue wall. The viewer recognizes the blue room and the old lady, but the contours are fainter than in earlier renditions; color and light are becoming figures in their own right and point in the direction of modern abstract painting. In terms of composition and use of color as motifs, it is a picture ahead of its time.

Anna Ancher never moved far away from her mother's hotel. With the exception of her studies in Copenhagen and Paris and a trip to Vienna with her husband in 1882, she lived and died where she was born. She was unique in her use of color and, like Matisse, she could make much of little, give an ordinary event or object depth and significance with a simple yet sophisticated juxtaposition of colors. Tied to her time and milieu, she unknowingly crossed from the prevailing naturalism into art, which makes the interplay of light and color the subject matter of a painting.


Berg, Knut, ed., et al. 1880-tal i nordiskt maaleri. Stockholm Nationalmuseum, 1986.

Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.

Schwartz, Walter. Skagen I Nordisk Kunst. Copenhagen: Carit Andersens Forlag, 1968

Varnedoe, Kirk. Northern Light. New Haven, CT: Yale University press, 1988.

Voss, Knud. Skatte fra Skagen. Copenhagen: Herluf Stockholms Forlag, n.d.

Wivel, Ole. Rejsen til Skagen. Copenhagen: G.E. Gad, 1978.

Inga Wiehl , Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Washington

About this article

Ancher, Anna (1859–1935)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article