Albert Edelfelt: Portraits

Albert Edelfelt had a contradictory attitude towards portraits of women. On the one hand, he was attracted to their sensuality and softness and their beauty. On the other, he much preferred the heroic role of men, their physical power, a quality he felt he lacked. At his salons, he exhibited only the heroic, manly paintings to wide acclaim. But to make ends meet, he painted Parisiennes. He found himself complaining about the contradictory impulses that drove him:

The worst thing is that I am so fed up with these so-called Parisian subjects, these little women (petites femmes), that I can no longer bear to see without thinking of all the wretched painting, superficial and cute, that one has to do with them. The models look all the same to me; I can achieve neither veracity or character when I paint them; their poses, always the same, annoy me, and that false prettyish elegance drives me insane.

And yet he couldn’t bear to part from the women. He loved them all, and several of them became his lovers.

Deep down, I have always wanted to be loyal towards women, not to promise more than I can keep and to be as gentlemanlike as possible. Having seen so much baseness so close, this wish is all the more important for me. Thousands of people spend their lives with no idea of passionate love. I have experienced it, albeit for only a moment, yet nonetheless long enough to know how deep and grand an emotion it is.

It has often been claimed that Virginie, one of his favourite models, was also a long-time lover; indeed, it’s been said that he had two children with her, and the only reason he didn’t marry her was that his mother arrived in Paris to put an end to the relationship. And yet, more extensive research by Maria Catani in her book Pariisi, kevään ja elämän tuoksu (“Paris, the Smell of Spring and Life”) reveals that if there was a relationship it couldn’t have lasted long enough for children. And yet the myth of Edelfelt as a bohemian mover and shaker in Parisian art circles refuses to die down.

References:

  1. Marja-Terttu Kiviranta, “Albert Edelfelt’s mysterious Virginie is an enduring myth in Finnish art history” on Helsingin Sanomat, 7 May 2004.
  2. Rakel Kallio, Douglas Siven, Albert Edelfelt, Douglas Productions Oy.
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