Focus on Anna Ancher
12th of June – 20th of October 2003
Anna Ancher (1859 – 1935) was in reality the only woman painter among the Skagen artists, a fact that was mirrored in her paintings, which depict the world of women.
Depictions of women
She painted many women – many more than men – and these women were often alone. A typical Anna Ancher motif was a single female figure in an interior setting – a bedroom or a living room – quietly occupied with a task or merely thoughtful and withdrawn. This contemplation is a very characteristic trait in Anna Ancher’s female figures. Their concentration is directed inward to their inner world, and there is almost never any eye contact with the beholder because the women look down, have their eyes closed or their backs turned.
It is significant that Anna Ancher’s figures are placed indoors. This is where she differs from the male Skagen artists who very often painted their subjects out of doors. They painted the fishermen on the beach, the sea, the dunes and the view over Skagen. With her interior motifs, Anna Ancher was more closely connected to other women artists of that time, artists that preferred to paint the immediacy of the intimate sphere – the rooms in the home, with children, sisters, mothers or servant girls as their models.
There are several reasons for female artists’ choice of motif. The home, housekeeping and children were the domain and responsibility of the women. This is where they were, so these motifs were close at hand. During the 1800s it was not acceptable for women, particularly middle-class women, to appear in public unaccompanied by men – not even to paint. Women were thus bound to remain in the home, also via their economic dependence on their husband or family as it was not considered acceptable, and was not common either, that the daughters and wives of the middle classes had an occupation. Their possibilities of an education were, therefore, extremely limited – at the time when Anna Ancher lived women artists were not even allowed to attend the Royal Academy. This had a significant influence on their choice of motif because they, as opposed to the men, were not schooled in the execution of monumental scenes with many figures of which Michael Ancher’s huge paintings of fishermen are an example.
Anna Ancher’s female figures can be divided into two groups. One group is made up of young middle-class women and the other of fishermen’s wives and daughters.
The middle-class women are easily recognised by their very respectable long dresses, with long sleeves and, at times, lace trimmings, their hair done up and their slim waists – see a. o. Young girl in lamplight and Interior with red poppies. They are in rooms that can be characterised as being feminine, rooms that mirror their femininity. These rooms or interiors are painted in pale light colours and are characterised by a sense of quietude and absorption, and the female figures are often accompanied by flowers. One can even detect a tendency where the flowers gradually replace the women – as in Interior with clematis – and where the flowers themselves finally disappear and the purely feminine room remains as in Interior. Brøndum’s annex, for example.
The other group of Anna Ancher’s female figures, the fishermen’s wives and daughters are first and foremost characterised by their headscarves – black or white, depending on whether they are widows or not. In Anna Ancher’s paintings they are closely bound up with religion: the women are either in church or at prayer meetings – for example Young girl attending a service at Skagen Church and A prayer meeting. Around 1900 the Evangelic Church movement has gained a solid foothold among the fishing population in Skagen – particularly among the women. Popularly speaking, the men went to the pub while the women turned to the church for succour and support in their often hard and frugal lives.
The religious life in Skagen
Anna Ancher was the only one among the Skagen artists who depicted the religious life in Skagen. This may have been because it was, as mentioned before, a women’s world, but personal reasons most certainly also played a part for Anna Ancher. Besides being the only woman in the artists’ colony she was also the only artist who was born and grew up in Skagen. Anna Ancher’s mother and sister were religious. They were both deeply involved in the Evangelic Church movement and as a child Anna Ancher accompanied her mother to bible readings and prayer meetings. Her adult life – as an artist and as a member of the artists’ colony – stood in sharp contrast to this religious upbringing. The Skagen artists were predominantly freethinkers and atheists and led an at times wild (at least in the eyes of the Skagen community) bohemian existence.
It is a distinct possibility that Anna Ancher felt an unconscious form of schism between her two worlds – the world of childhood, family and religion as opposed to that of the artists’ colony. It could well be such a schism that is expressed in her symbolist painting Grief, where she has depicted herself naked on one side of a cross and her mother with hands folded in prayer on the other. Here, Anna Ancher has depicted herself in the manner of a classical Maria Magdalene, who in former religious pictures was typically depicted as the repentant sinner, naked at the foot of the cross, her face covered by her long hair.
Anna Ancher has become known as the artist who painted light and sunshine, as an impressionistic inspired colourist for whom colour and light were of the utmost significance. The exhibition’s paintings of completive, withdrawn and thoughtful women show another side of Anna Ancher, a more serious side where the content of the paintings plays a significant role. It is the women’s lives that are in focus, lives as those lived around Anna Ancher, but also women’s lives understood on a more general and universal level.
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