The Ateneum Collection on Tour

Maria Wiik: Girl Carding, 1883. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Kirsi Halkola


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.

Alexander Lauréus / Party at the Parsonage and Lapps around a Fire

Alexander Lauréus (1783‒1823) painted several works of art on the theme of dance. This painting emphasizes the sense of harmony between the gentlemen and peasants as well as their dignity and well-being. The romantically idealized image of peasant life as being natural and pure stems partly from the ideals of the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings Lauréus had read.

As a romantic artist, Lauréus was fascinated by the changes in atmosphere that could be achieved by light, and he is known particularly for his depictions of firelight. The mood was more important to him than ethnographic accuracy. While Lauréus apparently never visited Lapland himself, in this painting he has depicted inhabitants of the north around a campfire.

In the absence of organized education, it was not possible for Lauréus to receive a professional education in the arts in Finland. A public collection was organized so that he could attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1802. In Stockholm, Lauréus gained membership in the Academy and the title of court painter. Having been awarded a six-year travel scholarship, he journeyed first to Paris, later to Rome, and focused primarily on depicting the life of ordinary people. During a very creative phase in Rome that saw Lauréus developing in the direction of realism, his career was tragically cut short by a sudden fever. After his death, the Finnish Art Society raised Lauréus into a paragon of Finnish painting.

Kreeta Haapasalo Playing the Kantele in a Peasant Cottage

In this painting by Robert Wilhelm Ekman (1808–1873), a group of attentive listeners has gathered around a woman playing the kantele. In addition to the mistress of the house, there are female members of the gentry with their children, a fisherman mending his nets and a pipe-smoking soldier. The melody has also captured the attention of the daughter of the house, busy by the cupboard, and the son, who sits on the floor carving wood.

The woman playing, Kreeta Haapasalo, was a well-known folk musician who supported her family during the famine years of the 1860s as an itinerant musician playing the kantele and singing poetry. The interest taken by the educated classes in the roots of the Finnish people made her greatly popular. Kreeta Haapasalo was viewed as the personification of the ancient Kalevala traditions, an interpreter who could connect with the very origins of everything that was genuinely Finnish.

Ekman was trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. His output is characterized by his passionate interest in the history of the Finnish people and the life of the common people. Following trips to France and Italy, Ekman returned to Finland for good in 1845 and, for the rest of his life, worked as the head teacher of the Turku Drawing School, established in the following year. The artist’s great but unfulfilled dream was to illustrate the national epic, the Kalevala.

Ekman’s depictions of life in Finland were well received. This work reflects idealistic view of the Finnish people and the values of civilization which transcend social class boundaries. This togetherness and harmony is further emphasised by the printed picture of the beloved Tsar Alexander I on the wall, benignly looking down on his subjects.

The Fanatics

Tyko Sallinen (1879–1955) was a prominent Finnish expressionist and experimental artist, perhaps even a rebel. Inspired by the fauvists and others, he developed his own vivid style of expression, and in the early 1910s he also developed a technique involving a thick, porous ground made of plaster, and which produced a seemingly cracked surface.

Tyko Sallinen was one of the artists who set up the November Group. The palette of Sallinen and that of many other artists became filled with shades of grey, blue and brown, with international cubism supplying one of the underlying sources of inspiration. The subjects, however, were often prosaic and Finnish: landscapes and people. The Fanatics was shown in the group’s exhibition in Ateneum in 1918. This depiction of religious exaltation and ecstasy is considered to be one of the artist’s key works.

Press releases

Magnus Enckell exhibition at the Ateneum – 150 years since the versatile artist’s birth

  A major exhibition of works by the painter Magnus Enckell (1870–1925) will be shown on the third floor of the Ateneum Art Museum, from 23 October 2020 to 14 February 2021. The exhibition offers a comprehensive overview of the work of one of…

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