During his summer stay at Skagen in 1883, Christian Krohg documented life in this remote artists’ colony in Denmark. That year, he also turned to some new themes which were to dominate his painting in the coming years.
From the sick child came a series of works showing exhausted or worried mothers with their children, of which Mother and Child (1883) is an early example. A young infant lies asleep in their crib, their exhausted mother fallen asleep on the head of her bed, her hand still resting where it had been rocking the child to sleep.
Around those figures and furniture, the room is barren and clinical, and the mother’s clothes plain and simple, dark grey. This also follows a trend among the Skagen painters to paint motifs like this which had been popular with Dutch artists in the past.
Later that year, Krohg opened the theme which was to make him almost infamous, that of the fallen woman and prostitution. Madeleine (1883) shows another barren bedroom, with a young woman sat on a thin mattress on a basic iron bedstead.
She is dressed for bed, and the sheets and pillow behind her show that her single bed has recently been occupied. Her body and head are bowed, forehead propped on her left hand, her eyes shielded from the viewer. In her other hand she holds a small mirror (or possibly a hairbrush). Her hair, though, is braided and tied back.
Krohg hints that she is falling, perhaps already engaged in prostitution. We are left to speculate as to the cause of her grief, what has just happened, and what lies ahead for her life.
In January 1884, Oda Engelhardt (née Othilia Pauline Christine Lasson, 1860-1935) enrolled as a pupil in Krohg’s art school. Oda and Krohg’s first child was born the following year, and they married in 1888, following her divorce. Their relationship was quite openly open: Oda, Christian, and Hans Jæger were in a love triangle in the months immediately prior to the Krohg’s marriage, and Oda is reputed to have had affairs with most of the people in their circle apart from Edvard Munch.
Oda was an accomplished artist in her own right, although her paintings were sadly eclipsed by her image as ‘princess’ in the Krohgs’ Bohemian circle.
Look Ahead, Bergen Harbour (1884) is an unusual painting from Krohg’s maritime series, this time set inside the sheltered waters of Bergen Harbour. A young man in shirtsleeves and wearing a trilby is rowing a small boat towards the middle of the harbour, and looks over his shoulder at the traffic which lies ahead of him.
This appears to have been prompted by one of Gustave Caillebotte’s paintings of boating activities near his estate at Yerres, Oarsman in a Top Hat (1877-78), below.
Mother at her Child’s Bed (1884) returns indoors, to the theme of motherhood, sickness, and sleep. In another barren bedroom, a girl lies asleep in her bed, with her mother sat anxiously at the bedside. The latter is dressed very plainly, in a prim dark blue jacket, with her hair plaited and wound up in a coif. The light coming from a window behind the viewer makes it clear that the curtains are open and that it is likely to be daytime rather than night.
From the theme of fatigue and sleep came another development, in Tired (1885). The young woman seen here is no mother, and she is neither in or near a bed. Instead, she is a seamstress, one of the many thousands who worked at home at that time, toiling for long hours by lamplight for a pittance. At the left is an empty cup, which had probably contained the coffee she drank to try to stay awake at her work.
Home work as a seamstress was seen as the beginning of the descent into prostitution. The paltry income generated by sewing quickly proved insufficient, and women sought alternatives. Prostitution had officially become a criminal offence in Norway in 1842, but was tolerated in Oslo (then known as Kristiania) from 1840, with the introduction of police and medical supervision of women sex-workers.
For much of 1885, Krohg was in Belgium at the Exposition Universelle in Antwerp, where he exhibited, but also had his first solo exhibition in Oslo.
Just before Christmas 1886, Krohg’s first novel Albertine was published by a left-wing publisher. Its central theme is prostitution in Norway at the time, and the police quickly seized all the copies they could find, banning it on the grounds of violating the good morals of the people. Krohg was found guilty of the offence the following March and fined, although the police were only able to seize 439 of the first 1600 copies to go into circulation.
At the same time as he was writing that novel, Krohg had been working on his largest and most complex painting: Albertine in the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room (1885-87). He also painted several other scenes from the book.
In the novel, Albertine starts as a poor seamstress, who is mistaken for a prostitute by the police officer in charge of the section controlling prostitutes. He plies her with alcohol, then rapes her. She is summoned to be inspected by the police doctor, whose examination further violates her, making her think that she is destined to be a prostitute – and that is, of course, exactly what happens.
Albertine is not the prominent woman in the centre looking directly at the viewer. Krohg’s heroine is the simple and humble country girl at the front of the queue to go into the police doctor for inspection.
Behind her is a mottley line of women from a wide range of situations. At the right, in the corner of the room, is another country girl with flushed cheeks. Others are apparently more advanced in their careers, and stare at Albertine, whose profiled face is barely visible from behind her headscarf. Barring the way to the surgery door, and in control of the proceedings, is a policeman.
The wide range of dress and appearance among the women is a striking feature of this painting.
Towards the end of his career, Krohg painted this much looser and more sketchy version of Albertine in the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room (1917), in which the women stare more pointedly at Albertine, who is about to go through the open door leading into the doctor’s examination room. Krohg said at the time that he thought this was a better composition, and less theatrical, joking that his earlier masterpiece had been a sketch for this later painting.
Most surprising is the fact that Krohg and fellow left-wingers and liberals were not campaigning for the liberalisation of prostitution, but for it to be banned altogether, arguing that enforcement of the actual criminal law would limit the numbers of women entering the trade. This is, of course, the exact opposite of many arguments in favour of the decriminalisation of prostitution today.
Braiding her Hair (1888) is a variation on the theme of motherhood in poverty, and reminiscent of much older Dutch and other paintings of mothers combing their child’s hair for nits and lice. Both the mother and her daughter face away from the viewer, rendering them anonymous, and both wear plain old clothing, in a barren room.
For much of 1888, Krohg was out of Norway. He was in Copenhagen for the first half, including a visit to Paris, then went on to Skagen for the summer.
Back at Skagen, Krohg resumed his almost clinical studies of the Gaihede family, in this clinical portrait of Ane Gaihede (1888).
As her husband rests in Niels Gaihede’s Afternoon Nap (1888), Ane sits knitting in the shadows to the right.
In the autumn of 1888, with her divorce completed, Christian Krohg married Oda Engelhardt, his former pupil, in Oslo. It was time for him to paint his own family.
Øystein Sjåstad (2017) Christian Krohg’s Naturalism, U Washington Press. ISBN 978 0 295 74206 9.