One of those artists, the gifted Anna Ancher, was born in 1859 at Brøndums, her family's newly opened inn, on the night Hans Christian Andersen visited. History has it (history, of course, being just another form of storytelling) that the renowned fabulist grew so belligerent when his dinner was late that the stress caused Anna's mother to give birth prematurely. Andersen had traveled the great distance to Skagen by mail coach, as Holger Drachmann and Michael Ancher and eventually P. S. Krøyer would in the years after him, to witness firsthand the rugged fishermen and the harsh conditions of their lives. The writer, absorbed with his own concerns, never returned; but the painters did, summer after summer, drawn as much by the gorgeous light and dramatic natural surroundings as by the daily toil of the fishermen. And it was Anna Ancher, by then married to Michael Ancher, who gave those artists ties to the people who lived there year-round (necessary for procuring subjects for their paintings), as well as a meeting place and home.
Such connections were in my head as, after breakfast one morning, I entered the Skagens Museum. Almost the first thing you encounter there is the old Br¿ndums dining room, transplanted in its entirety from the hotel down the street. And there on the dark-paneled walls, in dozens of small portraits (the method of bill payment preferred by painters), are the leading figures of Skagen's artistic past. It's a moving sight—the "real" faces of the artists—and fitting preparation for the collection of pictures that unfolds in the succeeding galleries, where you see depicted, with radiant sympathy, the "real" faces of the Skagen fishermen of the second half of the 19th century.
This visual juxtaposition of artists and fishermen seems at once apt and contradictory (with the exception of Anna Ancher, there was no socializing, no community, between the summer-resident artists and the local fishermen). Perhaps this is what gives the history of Skagen its stimulating tension: on the one hand, the aesthetic concerns of art and the life of the convivial mind; on the other, the grueling reality of subsistence fishing and the barren beauty of a mountain of sand or a rip in the seas. In a single day you can go, as I did, from the Skagens Museum to the painting-filled house of Michael and Anna Ancher down the street; to lunch at a fish shack on the harbor; to a café full of students; to a perfectly preserved 18th-century fisherman's cottage; to a stretch of beach painted by Kr¿yer in a dozen different ways; to dinner in Br¿ndums's elegant, painting-filled dining room (a replacement for the one now in the museum). And the next morning, crack of dawn, you, like me, can leave your spouse sleeping and wander bleary-eyed among the warehouses that line the harbor, searching for a fish auction that numerous people have insisted you must see (none of whom, you will later discover, has ever been to a fish auction at the crack of dawn). And yes, it's true, you might feel briefly bitter about this experience (having never actually found the fish auction); but you will feel too, in the pungent monuments of the docks and crying of the gulls and the absence of tourists, an oddly stirring resonance that is the quiet pulse of Skagen.
The town, of course, represents different things to different people. Having lunch one day at the harborside restaurant Pakhuset, we struck up a conversation with our waitress. Celeste Arnold, 25, an American whose mother married a Dane, has been living in Denmark since she was a child, and has spent much of her life in Skagen. Between delivering orders of cod fritters, herring, and pints of beer to tables of mostly German tourists, she lingered at our table, obviously happy to have a chance to use her English. The sun was shining and gulls hovered overhead, ready to dive-bomb anyone careless enough to wave a french fry. Celeste had lived briefly in New York City, she told us, and was currently a student at the university in Århus. But wherever she went, she could not seem to get over her love of Skagen, nor did she wish to.
Her Skagen was naturally a different place than the one tourists or even summer residents saw. Her favorite months were not June and July, but the cooler, less populated September and October. Her favorite beach was not the one in Gammel Skagen, but the S¿nderstrand, by the old lighthouse. "Summer and winter people don't mingle much," she added matter-of-factly. She went on to calmly discuss the rise of "big fishing" that is gradually squeezing out independent fishermen, and the efforts to build a movie theater in town after the old one closed eight years ago. Describing Susie and Leo, the comically infamous Captain-and-Tenille—like duo who have been singing in Skagen for some 20 years, Celeste burst out laughing. "They sing really horribly and Susie sews all their clothes." But in Skagen, she assured us, nobody mocks them because "they're kind of like really weird family." (Sadly, the act wasn't on during our stay.)