The sardine boats in painting - part 1

Although many 19th-century painters depicted the industrial changes that marked the society of their time, few of them focused on the most precarious and underpaid female industrial work of the time on a national scale. The five artists presented in this Sunday chronicle therefore deserve our full attention.

The earliest work, depicting female cannery workers at work, is attributed to one of the greatest masters of Danish painting, Peder Severin Krøyer (1851-1909). As Marianne Mathieu, curator of the monographic exhibition devoted to the artist at the Marmottan Monet Museum in spring-summer 2021: "A contemporary of Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), Peder Severin Krøyer is to the open air what his contemporary was to the indoor stage.

A student of Frederik Vermehren at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts from 1861 to 1870, then of Léon Bonnat in Paris between 1877 and 1882, Krøyer began an official career in Copenhagen and Paris. From 1882 onwards, he divided his time between the Danish capital and the fishing village of Skagen where, since 1870, a colony of Scandinavian artists has settled, attracted by the unique play of light in this area at the northern end of Jutland, on the borders of Denmark. There, the currents of the North Sea and the Baltic meet. The area is famous for its clear, crystal-clear light and days when the sun never seems to set as the summer solstice approaches (21 June). Skagen is thus one of the few places where artists can contemplate and paint the appearance of the "blue hour", the meteorological phenomenon that precedes dusk and unfolds especially at the far northern seaside.

Although Krøyer is a painter of exteriors, he is not content to reproduce the surrounding landscape and its play of light to perfection. His paintings are populated with living souls, both idle socialites and hard-working locals. The artist places equal importance on work done in the open air and in the studio. He divides his time between a rented house in Skagen in the summer and a flat in Copenhagen in the winter. His formats are diverse, ranging from small, life-like sketches to monumental paintings, some of which were shown at the official Salon in France.

Laurits Tuxen, Portrait of Peder Severin Krøyer, 1904, oil on canvas, Budapest Museum of Fine Arts
Laurits Tuxen, Portrait of Peder Severin Krøyer, 1904, oil on canvas, Budapest Museum of Fine Arts

The table Sardine factory in Concarneau Krøyer's 1879 painting is a medium-sized work (115.5 cm x 155.5 cm). The artist depicts an interior scene of a fish cannery. The scene is a realistic representation, faithful to the artist's academic style, and is carefully detailed. The famous headdress " penn sardin "This was characterised by a thin white bonnet, which usually showed the hair in a bun at the nape of the neck and was elegantly accented by a white ribbon. The other elements of the work dress such as the bib apron and the cape[1] of coloured wool are also detailed on the worker in the foreground of the composition.

Peder Severin Kroyer, Sardinerie à Concarneau, oil on canvas, 115x155 cm, 1879

The artist went so far as to dissociate the costumes worn by the different workers in this workshop, between those wearing the Penn Sardin whose geographical area of influence extended from the Crozon peninsula to the port of Concarneau at the end of the 19th century - and those wearing the Giz Foen carried in the Aven region. The latter is characterised by large winged strips. In addition to the careful textile details of the composition, the master has endeavoured to transcribe the half-light of the workshop while playing on the sun rays that cross the roof in places to illuminate the workers and the tables filled with sardines to be topped.