At the end of the 19th century, Paris was the centre of European art that attracted artists from Finland and other Nordic countries. Parisian influences soon began to appear in art. Romanticism was replaced by outdoor painting and realism. This period in the history of art has left us with a great number of iconic works.
The annual Salon exhibitions in Paris offered artists an opportunity for a great breakthrough. A case in point is Albert Edelfelt’s A Child’s Funeral (1879), which won a third-class medal.
In Finland this period became known as the Golden Age, representing a distillation of Finnish identity, people and landscape.
Vincent van Gogh: Street in Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890
This is one of Vincent van Gogh’s last works. It was painted in the small town of Auvers-sur-Oise in the north of France, where van Gogh was being treated by Dr. Gachet. Van Gogh’s life nevertheless ended in suicide that same year. This painting initially went to van Gogh’s brother Théo and then to Théo’s widow, who eventually sold it to the French art critic Julien Leclercq. Leclercq was married to Fanny Flodin, a Finnish pianist and sister of sculptor Hilda Flodin. The painting ended up at Ateneum when the Antell Delegation purchased it from Fanny Flodin at a cost of 2,500 Finnish marks. Ateneum thus became the first museum collection in the world to own a work by Vincent van Gogh.
Allan Österlind: Baptism, 1886
The Swedish artist Allan Österlind initially studied sculpture at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris but starting in the early 1880s dedicated himself to painting. Österlind settled in France permanently, and the French countryside with its villages, inhabitants and interiors are a frequent and recognisable theme in his work. Baptism is an example of French naturalist outdoor painting at its purest. The picture was painted in Tréboul, Brittany. Österlind’s friend H. F. Antell purchased the work directly from the artist.
Ferdinand von Wright: The Fighting Capercaillies, 1886
This is one of the most famous paintings in Finland, centering on two birds arrested in the middle of a fight. The tension of the drama played out in a hazy forest clearing is palpable, although the composition, based on the golden mean, is tranquil as such. Ferdinand von Wright, the youngest of three artistic brothers, preferred action and drama in his works. When he painted this piece, he was already well advanced in years, by then a peace-loving hermit settled permanently in his home region of Haminalahti. In art circles, such a painstaking style based on natural-scientific observation was regarded as somewhat oldfashioned, but this has not detracted from the phenomenal popularity of the work.
Watch a shortfilm of the painting
Edvard Munch: Bathing Men, 1907-1908
Edvard Munch painted this monumental picture on the beach at the Warnemünde spa in Germany. The men depicted in it are local lifeguards. The work resonates with the ideals of the age, with their links to vitalism and the healing power of nudity and outdoor living. The use of clear, unblended colours reflected the new conception of art that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. The painting was displayed at an exhibition of Norwegian art at Ateneum in 1911 as part of the triptych The Ages of Life. The central panel Bathing Men was flanked by Youth and Old Age. The acquisition of the work for the museum was contested. Its immediacy and freshness of style were admired, however, and the Antell Delegation decided to purchase the piece after a vote of 3–2.
Hugo Simberg: Towards the Evening, 1913
In this picture Hugo Simberg has painted his father Niclas Simberg and his son Tom on an evening stroll in Niemenlautta, the family’s summer residence near Viipuri. Niemenlautta was important for Hugo Simberg, and the views he painted from there are an inseparable part of his pictorial world. Towards the Evening was the last in a series of large-format paintings with human figures that Simberg painted in the course of more than ten years. Simberg’s depictions of children and old people have an exceptionally subtle and sympathetic quality. Simberg took particular care in finishing this painting by handcrafting the wooden frame for it. The painting was the single most important acquisition by Ateneum in 2015.
Albert Edelfelt: Women Outside the Church at Ruokolahti, 1887
Albert Edelfelt had been living in Paris for some time and had already acquired international success when, in 1887, he made a trip to South Karelia. There he made sketches of women and children on a church hill that served as the basis for this picture, although the models in the final painting apparently were from Haikkoo. Such ethnographically accurate and seemingly realistic depictions of Finnish countryside were regarded as exotic and interesting by the Parisian art circles. Back home the work was criticised for, among other things, hands that were depicted as too realistically. The painting was donated to the newly opened Ateneum Art Museum by the Senate.
Eero Järnefelt: Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood), 1893
NOTE! As part of Finland’s centenary year celebrations, Under the Yoke will go on tour to five Finnish art museums.
Burning existing vegetation used to be a common method for making soil fertile for cultivation. Järnefelt partly painted this picture – depicting peasants toiling in Savo – outdoors at a slash-and-burn site. At later stages he also used photographs he had taken of people and landscapes. The European trends of realism and naturalism were also eagerly adopted by Finnish art. Järnefelt specialised in Finnish subjects. This is his most famous work and an icon of the golden age of Finnish art. The poignant motif sparked a debate about the rights of the poor population.
Ilja Repin: Double Portrait of Natalia Nordmann and Ilya Repin, 1903
The Russian artist Ilya Repin spent the last 30 years or so of his life in a villa called Penaty in the Kuokkala ward on the Karelian Isthmus, which was still part of Finland at the time. It was there that Repin, a psychologically astute portraitist, painted himself alongside Natalia Nordmann, his life companion in his later years. Nordmann was a Swedish-Russian writer. Born in Helsinki, she was a suffragette and a champion of vegetarianism. Repin had close ties to the Finnish art world, and Ateneum Art Museum has in its collections over 100 of his works, most of them drawings.
Eero Järnefelt: Landscape from Koli, 1928
A lake landscape seen from a high angle and usually in summer was already the ideal depiction of natural beauty in Finland from the mid-19th century onwards. The Koli hills along Lake Pielisjärvi in eastern Finland are famous for their wide views, which artists and photographers seek to capture even to this day. Järnefelt visited Koli several times to paint there. This work was made between the world wars. Järnefelt is known for his panoramic landscape paintings, but he also treasured the tiniest details of nature as equally valuable subjects.
Hugo Simberg: The Wounded Angel, 1903
This work of Hugo Simberg’s was in preparation for several years. In the early stages the angel was being transported on a wagon and the bearers were little devils. The central figure throughout was nevertheless a wounded angel and the setting the Eläintarha Park in Helsinki. The pathway along Töölönlahti Bay remains there to this day. When Simberg first displayed the picture in the annual exhibition of the Finnish Art Society, its title was just a dash. The painting was a resounding success and Simberg was awarded the State Prize for Art. Another version of The Wounded Angel is in the Tampere Cathedral, the decorations of which were painted by Simberg, together with Magnus Enckell.
Helene Schjerfbeck: The Convalescent, 1888
This picture was painted in St. Ives in Cornwall, England. Schjerfbeck visited the region twice in the late 1880s. The painting was included in the Paris Salon the year of its completion under the title Première verdure, or ‘first greenery’. A sick child was a common subject in art at the time, but Schjerfbeck’s painting is also about the return of vitality. The brushwork is lively and the treatment of light is reminiscent of impressionism. The painting was praised in Paris. The reception back home was initially controversial – the picture was considered excessively realistic. However, the Finnish Art Society decided to purchase it, and soon after its completion the painting was acceded to Ateneum’s collection.
NOTE! Its status as a national gallery requires the Ateneum Art Museum to lend its works to other museums in Finland and abroad, and this is one of the reasons why the selection of works on display in Ateneum varies to some extent.
More information on the works and artists from the Finnish National Gallery Collections web service.