An idealised picture of the Finnish people was constructed in the last decades of the 19th century. Both peasants and gentlefolk were depicted in a romantic light. The scenes were often formal, but they also reveal an interest in folklore, such as dress and objects.
History painting was used to describe past events, such as wars or the lives of important persons. Artists were actually encouraged to tackle historical subjects, but the results were poorer than expected. Portraiture, however, was a more fertile field: it was important for the nation to capture major figures in images.
Albert Edelfelt: Portrait of Mrs. Anna Sinebrychoff, 1884
Albert Edelfelt was a popular portrait painter who received many commissions. He painted his family members and acquaintances, as well as commissioned portraits of scientists, notables and even statesmen. Anna Sinebrychoff (1830–1904) was the wife of Paul Sinebrychoff the Elder, head of a family of brewers in Helsinki. This painting is a milieu portrait of the recently widowed Anna, heir to the family legacy, in her own home. The social status, dignity and character of the sitter all come across clearly in the painting.
Albert Edelfelt: The Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 1887
The early summer’s day casts deep shadows in a park where children play in the sun. Even today the Luxembourg Garden is a popular oasis within the metropolis. Although Edelfelt lived in Paris for over fifteen years, this is the only large outdoor motif he painted there. Although there is a sense of accidental composition and photographic immediacy in the work, Edelfelt made dozens of sketches and studies for it, considering both the light and the grouping of figures. The newly completed painting was on display at an exhibition at Galerie Petit and was an immediate success. The children at play have been praised as a motif, but equally important is the play of light and shadow, clearly influenced by impressionism.
Maria Wiik: Opera singer Ida Basilier-Magelsen’s portrait as Philine in Ambroise Thomas’ opera Mignon, 1887
Famed as a sensitive and skilful portraitist, Maria Wiik painted commissioned portraits of notable figures, particularly in the 1880s. Ida Basilier-Magelsen was a Finnish opera soprano and voice teacher whose own voice was described as bright but also warm and her presentation nimble. The painter and sitter of this picture were both rarities in their day: talented and goal-oriented women, both of whom were educated in an artistic profession in Finland and France. In the picture the singer poses in the magnificent costume of Philine from the opera Mignon by Ambroise Thomas.
Robert Wilhelm Ekman: Pentti Lyytinen recites poems in a cottage in Savo, 1848
This painting of innkeeper Pentti Lyytinen reading his poems aloud was in its time one of the most highly acclaimed pieces by Ekman. It was one of the first depictions of ordinary people in Finnish art at a time when national sentiment was rearing its head in Finland. The painting was completed in 1848, a year before the publication of the Kalevala in its current form. Ekman has rendered the scene of Lyytinen’s reading and the interior of the cottage with meticulous care and in an idealised manner, although in the depiction of objects he has rather loosely combined eastern and western features of Finnish vernacular. The picture gives a sense of an industrious and harmonious family. That the family is literate is revealed by the Bible, quill and inkwell on the window sill.
Albert Edelfelt: Queen Bianca, 1877
One of reasons Edelfelt painted this picture was the need to illustrate Finnish history. The subject of this work is from Zachris Topelius’s children’s story Rida ranka, written in medieval Finland. Queen Bianca bounces her son Haakon on her knee and sings to him about his future bride Margaret, the Princess of Denmark. The mother’s plans would result in the unification of Sweden and Denmark, which was actually realised in the Kalmar Union (1397–1523). Edelfelt painted the picture in a humble attic flat in Paris at the young age of 22. The materials in the picture are rendered with utmost skill. The mother’s face and the child’s gestures are expressive of pure joy.
Helene Schjerfbeck: Wounded Warrior in the Snow, 1880
The subject of this painting refers to the Fenno-Russian War (1808–1809), depicted also by J. L. Runeberg in his book The Tales of Ensign Stål. The historical event is the retreat of troops from Finnish territory in December 1808, when most of the Finnish army was destroyed. The painting shows a soldier in uniform, left behind and leaning on the trunk of a birch tree as troops withdraw far into the snowy distance. The winter landscape is typically Finnish. The young artist launched her career from a lofty height: Helene Schjerfbeck was just 17 when she embarked upon this historical theme. History painting was the most prestigious genre at the time, and depictions of scenes from Finnish history were important building blocks in the construction of the nation’s identity.
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.