From 1809 for more than a century, Finland was part of the Russian Empire. For much of the period, it was a fairly autonomous Grand Duchy, more prosperous and freer than the rest of the Empire. Finns were more or less loyal to the Czar, and supplied generations of fighting men for the Imperial army.
Later Czars began a Russification of the Grand Duchy that resulted in a long period of rising nationalism and civil disobedience. During this time, Finnish art began to take on tones – both covert and overt – of nationalistic pride and opposition to the Imperium. But as Finland remained somewhat peripheral to the artistic universe, the major artists felt obliged to gravitate to cities such as St. Petersburg or emigrate entirely. Many ended up in Paris, which in the period from the end of the 19th to the middle of the 20th centuries was the Great Attractor for every manner of art. We have seen three exemplars of the Russian avant-garde who were contemporaries in Paris; at the same time there was a large diaspora of Scandinavian and Finnish artists as well. For many, despite the competing attractions of the new abstract, nostalgia for their motherlands was a compelling motive, just as it was for their Russian cohort.
While many of the Finns sought to distance themselves from their Imperial overlords, there were others who were able to make bridges between their own nationalistic feelings and Russia. Given that this is a blog of the art of the erstwhile Russian (and Soviet) imperium, I’m pleased to present Albert Edelfelt, a man who was equally at home with his patriotism and his respect for Russia.
A brief biographical outline: he was born in Finland in 1854 to a family of Swedish origin. He studied art at Helsinki, but finding the quality of the instruction somewhat lacking, enrolled at the age of 19 at the Antwerp Academy of Art for six months (studying historical painting), proceeding thereafter to Paris. He fell in love with the City of Lights at once and decided to make his life there.
It was his pursuit of the historical painting that garnered him his initial fame. A large tableau ‘Queen Bianca‘ led to commissions for portraiture; his ‘Duke Karl Insulting the Corpse of Klas Fleming‘ attracted the attention of the Czar. He was granted Imperial favour: he spent some time in Gachina painting the royal children, obtained sittings of the Czar.
He was offered a professorship by Ilya Repin himself at the Imperial Art Academy in St Petersburg but feeling that the city offered far less artistically than Paris, he declined the honour. Materially, too, he found that his rich clientele in France provided a better living than anything he could have managed back in Russia.
In the 1878 World Exhibition at Paris, his art appeared in the Russian section (given Finland’s status as a Grand Duchy). Nevertheless his espousal of the Finnish cause resulted in a separate section for Finnish art at subsequent exhibitions, notably at the Paris Exposition of 1900.
As the historical painting was already losing its lustre by the late 1870s, Edelfelt began to look into alternative genre to pursue. The plein air is what attracted him, a category of art that depicted contemporary reality in open spaces. Together with his friend, the great champion of plein air, Jules Bastien-Lepage, he began his investigations. These resulted in the 1879 masterwork ‘A Child’s Funeral‘ which won for him a coveted medal at the 1880 Paris Salon, the first ever by a Finn. Subsequently, he worked on other plein air pieces, among which we may list ‘Divine Service in the Uusimaa Archipelago‘ (1881) and ‘At Sea‘ (1882).
Edelfelt was an accomplished portraitist too. His likeness of Louis Pasteur (1885) won him great acclaim, especially when he beat the Frenchman Léon Bonnat (who had also painted the scientist) to win a prize at the 1886 Paris Salon. A whole slew of commissions came his way, particularly in the ‘milieu’ tradition where the sitters were depicted in their characteristic surroundings.
A champion womanizer and workaholic, Edelfelt painted many portraits of his lovers. Two Frenchwomen, in particular, were his favourites: Antonia Bonjean who modelled for him in 1878-79, and her daughter Virginie in 1880-83. (It’s a long-standing piece of gossip that he fathered children on Virginie and even intended to marry her, but a visit from his mother soon put a stop to that. Recent research has revealed that this may be just that – gossip.)
He also worked many landscapes, and especially the monumental ‘The Inauguration of Turku Academy‘ (which he completed in 1904 and was destroyed forty years later during the bombing of Helsinki). His frenetic pace of work caused his death of heart failure in 1905.
Edelfelt’s art received high praise from the likes of van Gogh; he was widely considered something of a hero in Finland, which was starved for aesthetic heroes. After a 1910 retrospective of his work, his name began to fade rapidly. “At the international level, however, the artist quickly began to be forgotten, with the breakthrough of modern art. But there has been a gradual realisation of the bias of such an attitude, and scholars are showing renewed interest in art which was so much admired at the time. There is certainly no denying that Edelfelt was a middle-of-the-road artist whose success was carefully calculated. A reformer or rebel he was not; but he was a magnificent painter, and probably his life’s work was most valuable to Finland just as it was. He taught the world to respect Finnish culture at exactly the right time.” (Aimo Reitala)
- Otto Utti: “Albert Edelfelt, Master of plein air“, November 2004, in This is Finland.
- Aimo Reitala: “Albert Edelfelt, painter“, in the National Biography of Finland.
- Rakel Kallio, Douglas Diven, Albert Edelfelt (PDF!), Douglas Productions Oy.