During the latter half of the nineteenth century in Finland, the combination of increasing interest in painting and the arts generally, and awakening national identity, resulted in a small but active painting community. In the early years many Finnish painters trained at the leading painting academy of the day, the Düsseldorf Art Academy, but the rise of Paris in the 1870s made its schools and academies popular too.
Unfortunately most of the fine Finnish painters are unknown outside Finland, and their works remain relatively inaccessible. I have selected three who showed most influence from Impressionism, and whose paintings are available beyond the walls of the Ateneum gallery in Helsinki.
Other important painters who should have been included are Helene Schjerfbeck and Victor Westerholm, but sadly there are insufficient images of good enough quality to do their work justice.
Fanny Maria Churberg (1845-1892)
[Note that her surname is pronounced with a hard ch as if the letter k, and the final g is soft, more like a y as in yacht.]
Born in the south-east of Finland in 1845, Churberg moved to Helsinki in 1865, where she took private lessons in painting. She went to Düsseldorf in 1867 intending to study at the Academy there, only to discover that it did not cater for women, so she took private lessons again, and studied the art collections in Dresden. Her early work was strictly realist, but she soon started to use higher chroma colours and to express more transient effects of light.
Ten years later she went to Paris to study further, where she was influenced by Courbet. Her brushwork became progressively looser and more painterly as a result.
In 1880 she ceased painting altogether, and set up the Friends of Finnish Handicrafts Society, which remained her focus until she died in 1892.
It has been suggested that one factor in her stopping painting was the deteriorating critical reception that she received as her brushwork became looser. Some of her last works, depicting winter scenes, appear quite strongly impressionist, with bold and obvious marks, which may have been too radical for many at the time.
Albert Gustaf Aristides Edelfelt (1854-1905)
He was born in Porvoo, to the east of Helsinki on the south coast, in 1854, the son of an architect. He started at the Drawing School of the newly-formed Finnish Art Society in 1869, whilst studying languages and history in the Imperial University of Helsinki. With the support of the businessman Victor Hoving as patron, he studied history painting at the Antwerp Academy of Art from 1873-4, then was awarded a place at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts, Paris, between 1874-8. There he was taught by Gérôme, and shared a studio with an American, Julian Alden Weir, who introduced him to John Singer Sargent.
Although he retained a love of painting plein air acquired in Paris, much of his commercial work was portraiture, which included the most affluent in society and members of royal families. His portrait of Queen Blanka was included in the Russian section at the World Exposition in Paris in 1878 (Finland being an autonomous Grand Duchy within Russia at that time). He also studied in Saint Petersburg in 1881-2, and his portrait of Louis Pasteur won him the Legion of Honour in the Paris Salon of 1886.
Initially he was a strict realist, and it is as a realist that he is best known today. However he continued to work in Paris when he could, and as a result his landscapes and some of his less formal portraits became progressively more loose and less realist. During the 1890s his paintings appear quite impressionist, rich in colour and light, although he generally left finer brushmarks, and continued to paint fairly conventional finished portraits.
He declined an offer by Ilya Repin of a professorial chair at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, in 1896. He contributed to the Finnish cause with paintings of the 1808-9 Russo-Swedish War, shortly before his death in 1905.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Axél Waldemar Gallén) (1865-1931)
Born Axél Waldemar Gallén in Pori, on the west coast near the Gulf of Bothnia, in 1865, he was educated in Helsinki. He attended drawing classes at the Finnish Art Society there from 1881-4, then moved to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian.
In these early years of his career, Gallén clearly became influenced by the Impressionists, although retaining some realism from Bastien-Lepage. His brushstrokes also became visibly looser, particularly when portraying clothing and fabrics.
Although his rather brazen nude Démasquée might appear to be following the Impressionist tradition of using unconventional nudes to shock, it was actually painted for a commission and was not seen in public for many years.
From the 1880s, he was actively researching the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, and completed studies in preparation for more monumental paintings including his famous Aino Triptych.
Until 1895 he continued to paint impressionist landscapes. Following the death of his daughter in that year, he changed his style again, and shed any semblance of Impressionism.
In 1894, he moved to Berlin, where he exhibited jointly with Edvard Munch. He painted frescoes for the Finnish Pavilion at the 1900 World Fair in Paris, in which his symbolism had become obvious and promoted the Finnish nationalist cause. He Finnicised his name in 1907, and moved to Nairobi, Kenya, in 1909, where he painted in Expressionist style.
Returning to Finland in 1911, he continued to be involved with the nationalist cause, and in 1918 fought in the Finnish Civil War (for independence from Russia). He lived in the US from 1923-6. Following that, he returned to Finland, dying in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1931.
For Gallen-Kallela, his impressionist style occupied less than a decade, as he moved from realism to Symbolism and then Expressionism. It was long enough, though, for him to leave several gently and delightfully worked paintings which beg the question as to what he might have achieved had he not changed styles so quickly.
More of her paintings at Art Inconnu – well worth a visit
Biography at This is Finland
The Gallen-Kallela Museum site
Valkonen M tr Wynne-Ellis M (1992/2005) The Golden Age. Finnish Art 1850-1907, Werner Söderström. ISBN 978 9 510 17570 5. (One of the few books available in English, it has excellent coverage of the period, with quality reproductions of many works that are hard to locate even in Finnish collections. The introductory essay is also very helpful.)