The Nordic light crashes through the window like a diva in a china shop — pushing everything aside, demanding its presence be known.
It is the first thing a viewer notices when looking at Anna Ancher’s painting, “Sunlight in the Blue Room.” You barely see the golden-haired girl sitting in a pinafore on the edge of her chair: She tends to blend in with the furniture, which seems to be arranged to face the light streaming through a window, casting a block of lighter blue on an ocean-blue wall.
“When Ancher paints light, often it becomes the subject of the painting,” says Virginia Treanor, associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. “Here, it is right in the middle of the painting. It is contained. It is geometric. In other paintings, there are a number of places where she has built up the light with thick impastoed paint, so it becomes very physical, almost like an object itself.”
“Sunlight in the Blue Room” is one of 64 paintings and oil sketches in the exhibition “A World Apart: Anna Ancher and the Skagen Art Colony,” which runs through May 12 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
At its height in the 1880s and ’90s, Denmark’s Skagen Art Colony attracted dozens of artists who were drawn to the isolated fishing village by the light and the unspoiled land- and seascapes. While the exhibition focuses on Ancher, the most prominent woman, it also includes works by her husband, Michael Ancher, as well as Laurits Tuxen, Viggo Johansen, Christian Krohg, Oscar Bjorck, Holger Drachmann, Carl Locher and P.S. Kroyer, whose large-scale oil paintings capture the “heroic” life of fishermen in Skagen.
This is the first time a comprehensive selection of paintings by Anna Ancher has left Skagen, according to an official at the Danish Embassy, and provides a rare opportunity for audiences outside of Denmark to view the works, which are not scheduled to travel elsewhere.
“A World Apart” opened in conjunction with Nordic Cool, a festival at the Kennedy Center, which presents the cultures of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Greenland, Sweden, theAland Islands and the Faroe Islands.
The Anna Ancher show was inspired by a 2004 Women in the Arts exhibit (also called Nordic Cool), which focused on Nordic female designers. While working on that exhibit with the Danish Embassy, curators learned more about Ancher and traveled to Skagen to explore. They decided to create a new exhibition with Ancher as the focus; although the museum highlights female artists, the curators included male painters from the colony to put Anna Ancher’s work in context and show “she was the most avant-garde of the group of Skagen artists, pushing the envelope,” Treanor says.
Ancher, who was the only native of Skagen among the artists in the colony, became an icon in Denmark not only for her art but for breaking social boundaries. She was a wife and mother who painted at a time when most women abandoned work after they married and had children. She also painted during an era when women were prohibited from studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Around the age of 16, she began traveling to Copenhagen for private art lessons and training. She also observed the painters who took rooms at her family’s hotel when they journeyed to Skagen, on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. “It is a particular light that far north, especially during the summer time when the sun never sets,” Treanor says.
Michael Ancher, one of the artists lured to Skagen, met Anna at her parents’ hotel. They were married in 1880, when she was 20 years old, then had a daughter, Helga, and built a home in Skagen.
The Skagen colony artists became known as part of the modern breakthrough movement, shrugging off the academic tradition of neoclassical painting styles preferred at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and building on realist, naturalist and impressionist movements to depict everyday life and everyday people in an unidealized way.
Anna Ancher’s use of color and depiction of light were noted by her contemporary critics; one wrote in 1884that her work was “bold and masculine,” according to Elisabeth Fabritius, board member of the Helga Ancher Foundation.
Ancher also stood out because of the subject matter she chose, according to Marianne Jelved, the Danish Embassy’s minister for culture. “She didn’t paint beaches and the bright summer evenings that we see in other well-known painters of Skagen. Anna Ancher painted the women. She painted the women inside the houses where the daughters and the wives of the fishermen spent their time.”
Some of her most iconic interiors show no people. Instead, Ancher features light playing on walls and pushing through windows.
In “Evening Sun in the Artist’s Studio,” painted in 1912, the light almost jumps off the painting. “It is very physical,” Treanor says. “It is solid.”
“Light on the Wall in the Blue Room” was one of many studies found in a locked drawer after her death.
“What makes it so interesting,” Treanor says, “is she has focused only on the light on the wall and taking everything else away. She is creating a composition out of color. While it is not intended to be an abstract image, it gives us an insight into how she is thinking of constructing an image of the light out of color and shape.”
“Evening Sun in the Artists’ Studio,” depicts a blue wall with brilliant orange sunlight. “The paint is so thickly applied where the light is, it protrudes off the canvas physically,” Treanor says. “She has taken this ephemeral thing, light on the wall, and made it a tactile object. Many other Skagen artists used light to dramatize a scene, playing with shadows and lightness and darkness in their paintings. “For Ancher,” Treanor says, “the light is the subject. It is not a device.”
through May 12 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts 1250 New York Ave. NW. 202-783-5000.