Sigrid af Forselles: Youth (1880-luku). Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Strong, Self-sufficient and Sharp – Nordic Women Sculptors 1870–1940

The research project aims to chart and compare the women sculptors in the Nordic countries who were active at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. The criterion of selection is that the women were professionals, meaning that they had been trained as sculptors and/or that they had exhibited sculpture at public exhibitions or that their work had been acquired by museums.

A research and exhibition project coordinated by Nationalmuseum, Stockholm; the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, and the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

The results of the research project have been released in a publication and at an exhibition at the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, in 2022.

The project leader is the curator of sculpture Linda Hinners Ph.D. of the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Members of the editorial board are the curator Vibeke Waallann Hansen of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, and the senior researcher Anu Utriainen of the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki.

The increased presence of women in artistic life at the end of the 19th century marks an important shift and reflects the discussions about gender in this period. This was a pioneering time for women’s right to professional careers and paid employment. Art was an attractive choice for the daughters of the middle classes. In 1864, Sweden became one of the first countries in Europe to open a section for women at its academy of fine arts. At the same time, there were still limits to women having careers as independent artists, and conventional opinions had a powerful influence on what were deemed to be suitable activities and occupations for women.

Recent years have brought important studies about women sculptors both in the Nordic countries and elsewhere. These studies show that a striking number of women trained as sculptors at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, not least in the Nordic countries. Like their painting sisters, the Nordic “sculptresses” travelled to the continent, and especially to Paris, to continue their studies. There they got to know a new and freer idiom, and they had opportunities to study and to practise their profession in a way that would not have been possible at home. Several of the women remained in Paris for many years.

The principal questions to be addressed are:

Women Sculptors: What do the members of this group have in common and what are their differences? What similarities/differences are there among the Nordic countries? What common aspects are there in the international context of women sculptors? How did they manage as women sculptors, and what was it that drove them? What obstacles did they encounter? Why did they stay in France or abroad? Why were they forgotten/underestimated during the 20th century?

The Social Context: What was the background of the Nordic sculptresses; from which social class did they originate? Where did they pursue their artistic training? What were their networks and how did they use them? How involved in women’s issues in general were they, and how important was their contribution to the women’s movement in general? How much did their lifestyle and personal choices affect their professional lives?

The Work: What is characteristic of their work? How were they received by their contemporaries? Were there certain types of subjects, materials and categories of objects that were considered more or less suitable for women? How did they make their mark in the art world and the art market? Why were the women forgotten for such a long time?

Author:Anu Utriainen

Senior Researcher and Curator, MA
anu.utriainen [a]

See also