The religious subjects found in Anna Ancher’s art have long been a source of puzzlement. She was part of the Modern Breakthrough, which wanted the world to be described scientifically and objectively, leaving little room for religion. Yet unlike the other Skagen painters, Anna Ancher’s oeuvre includes a large group of works depicting religious situations. And if you look at the bookshelves in the Anchers’ house in Skagen, you will find Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species side by side with the Bible and a well-worn hymnbook. Perhaps Anna Ancher’s relationship with religion is not so clear-cut.
Anna Ancher grew up in a decidedly Christian home where her mother Ane and sisters Agnes, Marie and Hulda became part of the Home Mission revival movement when it arrived in Skagen in the 1870s. This is not surprising. In this small fishing community, life could be harsh and was governed by the terms set by nature; death at sea was part of everyday life. We also know from Ancher’s letters to her cousin Martha Møller (later Johansen) that she went to church when in Copenhagen. Still, parallel to this, she enjoyed an equal marriage and was part of a liberal-minded artistic circle that did not attach any particular value to religious ideas.
When studying Anna Ancher’s works, this duality is well worth considering. Perhaps she found a place for religion in the midst of the artists’ colony. The light in her pictures has so far been described as an objective representation of the world, while her religious motifs have been seen as depictions of life in Skagen. But perhaps Anna Ancher’s works also offer scope for a religious outlook on life.
Photo: Anna Ancher, A Funeral, 1891. Statens museum for kunst.