1856 to today: Fishing community and artists’ colony

See footage from Christiansø recorded in 1917.

Find out more about OTC – Old Time Christiansø

Naturally, the decommissioning of the fortress caused a great deal of unemployment on Christiansø, and the Danish government feared that the island would decline into a fattigkoloni (literally a settlement of paupers). The many unemployed families were therefore ordered to leave the islands. However, when it became clear to the government after a few years that the residents could make a living from fishing, many families were permitted to move back, and fishery became the principal occupation on Christiansø.

In the 1900s, the population of Christiansø primarily consisted of fishermen. However, artists also spent time there. During World War II, the island was used as a supply line for the Danish resistance.

In the early 1900s, artists discovered Christiansø. Until then, the islands had only seen chance visits by marine painters, such as painter and poet Holger Drachmann.

Among the artists who moved to the island were students of Kristian Zahrtmann’s Artists Studio School. On Christiansø, they found an almost Mediterranean atmosphere with sunlight, rocky cliffs and blue sea. But the ancient fortress with its grey expanses and straight lines was also a favourite subject. The young Aksel Salto was the first to open artists’ eyes to the picturesque qualities of the island. He spent many a summer visiting his kinsman, Captain With, the island administrator.

Over the next decades, the islands were visited by the Swedish artists Karl Isacson and Oscar Hullgren, as well as by a large number of Danish painters, some staying for short periods, others returning summer after summer, including: Kamma Salto, Vilhelm Lundstrøm, Harald Giersing, Mogens Lorentzen, Sigurd Svane and Edward Weie, just to name a few. Later, many other painters visited the island for short or longer periods, including: Oluf Høst, Olaf Rude, Sven Havsten Mikkelsen and Karl Locher. Henning Køie, Oscar Lemvig, Karl Larsen and Gitz-Johansen. 

Some took up permanent residence, while others became regular summer visitors either as campers or letting summer cottages. Today, the best places to see the works of the ‘Christiansø painters’ are Bornholms Kunstmuseum and the National Gallery of Denmark.

In 1922, Christiansø’s buildings became protected as historical sites, and later the flora and fauna on the islands also became protected.

During World War II between 1940 and 1945, Christiansø was occupied by two German soldiers. During that same period, many of the island’s fishermen helped to transport Jews to Sweden and smuggled weapons to the Danish resistance. Fortunately, the two Germany soldiers never caught on. 

In 2013, the last commercial fisherman left Christiansø – however the islands are still frequented by artists.

The artists’ colony on Christiansø

Like Skagen in northern Jutland, artists from all over Denmark flocked to Christiansø in the early 1900s to paint. An artists’ colony quickly formed, with many of the painters returning year after year, while others came for just one season. In those days, artists were often poor but sensitive souls who gave up everything for the sake of their one passion – art.

1911 saw the arrival of a large group of artists on the Christiansø ferry, including Andreas Friis, Harald Giersing, Mogens Lorentzen, Axel Salto and Kamma Thorn. They took up cheap lodgings at Møllehuset, Syngehuset and the old prison. They were lively young people, running around enjoying themselves on the little island, and the contrast to the weather-beaten fishermen was stark.

In summer 1912, however, things got a little too colourful according to the island administrator. The young artists, who would rather spend their money on fresh tubes of paint than on new clothes, could be seen wandering about the island in gaudy attire: the islanders’ old carnival costumes. This was a problem, because King Christian X was scheduled to visit the island that year, and in the opinion of the administrator, the costumed artists made the island look bad. He therefore asked the colourful bohemians to stay indoors during the King’s visit. The artists complied with the administrator’s request, but as a bit of vengeful fun, they created a bust of the enemy of the Crown, Dr Dampe, in whose cells the artists were ‘locked up’.

Christiansø still receives visits from many artists, and, especially in the summer, it is not uncommon to see painters sitting at their easels trying to capture the unique light and colours of Ertholmene.