Midsummer Eve bonfire on Skagen’s beach

Exploring the Danish painter Peder Severin Krøyer’s last large figure painting

P.S. Krøyer (1884) by Oscar BjörckSkagens Museum

Peder Severin Krøyer

When he arrived at the fishing village of Skagen for the first time in 1882, Peder Severin Krøyer was already a famous painter. Krøyer portrayed the life of the artists in the Skagen art colony. Scenes such as promenades on the beach, social gatherings, and the magnificent atmosphere of the evenings in the moonlight was Krøyer’s chosen motifs.

Double portrait of Marie and P.S. Krøyer. The couple have portrayed one another (1890) by Marie KrøyerSkagens Museum

The Skagen Painters

Even before Krøyers arrival in Skagen, a group of artists had established an art colony there, which would be known as the Skagen Painters. Krøyer's reputation as a celebrated painter made him a natural focal point for the art colony.

Midsummer Eve bonfire on Skagen's beach (1906) by P.S. KrøyerSkagens Museum

Midsummer Eve bonfire on Skagen’s beach

Painted in 1906, this picture was P.S Krøyer’s last large figure painting. He gathers some of the major representatives of the art colony, members of the town’s bourgeoisie, as well as some of the residents of Skagen, in a large circle around the Midsummer eve bonfire on Skagen Sønderstrand.
Krøyer started the first sketch for the painting in 1892, but due to other commissions and illness, the picture was only completed 14 years later.

Sankt Hansaften

Midsummer bonfires are held all over Denmark on Saint John's Eve (Sankt Hansaften) on June 23rd, where communities gather and light a bonfire. The painting depicts one such gathering in Skagen.

The scene of the painting is set on the Sønderstrand beach in front of the Vippefyret knoll on the edge of Skagen town. From this point, the moor stretches north and east.

Midsummer Eve bonfire on Skagen's beach (1906) by P.S. KrøyerSkagens Museum

In the background to the left is the solitary Skagen Lighthouse. The annual midsummer bonfire is still celebrated here on the evening of June 23rd.

The bonfire does not resemble a midsummer eve bonfire of today. At that time they simply stacked several tar barrels on top of one another and set them alight.

Artists and villagers

The painting is a tribute to the artist colony in Skagen, but it is the first time Krøyer depicts the local population together with the artists.

There are still clear differences between the two groups.

Most of the local population of fishermen are placed on the darker, right side, while most of the artists are placed on the lighter, left side of the picture together with the local bourgeoisie.

The painting is a group portrait and almost all of the people portrayed are indetifiable.

Anna Ancher
The woman gazing into the fire with her back turned to us is Danish painter Anna Ancher. She was the daughter of the local innkeeper and was the only one of Skagen Painters, who was born and raised in Skagen.

Michael Ancher
Just behind her stands her husband and fellow painter Michael Ancher. He first came to Skagen in 1874 at the age of 25. Michael Ancher is best known for his portrayals of Skagen’s heroic fishermen.

Degn Brøndum
Next to Michael Ancher stands his brother-in-law, Anna Ancher's brother Degn Brøndum. He converted his parents' inn into a fashionable hotel, which hosted many of the artists. Brøndum was a major patron of the arts and bequeathed his estate to Skagens Museum.

Holger Drachmann
The tall man is the poet and painter Holger Drachmann. He was one of the first artists who came to Skagen. He wrote the lyrics to the ‘Midsommervisen’, which is still sung around the bonfires all over Denmark. Next to him is his third wife Soffi

Marie Krøyer
Standing by the boat in the background is Krøyer’s former wife Marie Krøyer with her future husband, the Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén. Marie Krøyer was a prolific painter herself, but ceased painting some years into her marriage with Krøyer.

The artist's daughter
To the left edge of the painting is Vibeke Krøyer, daughter of Peder Severin Krøyer and Marie Krøyer. Next to her is her maternal uncle Valdemar Triepke.

Otto Georg and Alba Schwartz
The mayor of Skagen, Otto Georg Schwartz stands next to his wife.

Walter Schwartz
Their son, Walter Schwartz, sits behind the other children in front of the fire. He would later recall, how Krøyer originally had planned to have fishermen in this location, but changed his composition, so that they would not block the view of the fire.

Henny Brodersen
The only one in the painting who looks directly towards us is Henny Brodersen. She was Krøyer’s dear friend and often took care of him during his illness.

J.F. Brodersen
Henny Brodersen's husband, the town clerk J.F. Brodersen, is also in the painting arm in arm with his sister-in-law.

P.K. Nielsen
Controlling the fire with a stick is P.K. Nielsen, who chaired the lifesaving service in Skagen.

Laurits Tuxen
The painter Laurits Tuxen enjoyed great success as a portrait painter at the courts of Europe. After a lengthy hiatus from Skagen, he returned to the town in 1901 and build a large villa. Next to him is his second wife Frederikke.

Reflections of light

In the painting, Krøyer explores three different sources of light and how they reflect: The artificial light from the lighthouse, the pale moonlight and the vibrant light from the bonfire.

Throughout his life, Krøyer was fascinated of fire. He had experienced and sketched an eruption of Mount Vesuvius and mourned that he had not seen the fire, which had destroyed the royal palace in Copenhagen.

The French painter Charles Cottet gave Krøyer a special reflector lamp, which allowed him to study the reflection of fire in the comfort of his studio.

The happy days of summer, that Krøyer sought to capture, would not last. In a few years’ time, several of the figures in the painting would be gone. 

In the beginning of 1908, Holger Drachmann died, and his ashes was laid to rest in the dunes behind the lighthouse in a monument designed by Krøyer.

Suffering from prolonged illness and severe depression, Krøyer himself died the following year.

The world of the Skagen Painters would soon be lost, but their legacy lives on in their paintings at Skagens Museum and the midsummer bonfire is still celebrated at the same spot as it was then.

Credits: Story

Text – Skagens Kunstmuseer | Art Museums of Skagen

Credits: All media
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