My blog today is a veritable “potpourri”. It is a blend of history and geography all carefully mixed with the usual large serving of art history. It is a tale of a lake and forest, a country’s change of sovereignty and an artist who lived through those times but fell in love with his habitat. Today’s blog is all about the Finnish painter Akseli Gallén-Kallela, but this was not the name he was born with and this change is down to the changing history of his birth nation, Finland.
If we look upon the history of Finland as a book, we should consider it as having three chapters. The first chapter would cover the period when what is now known as Finland was under the control of Sweden. This area was sandwiched between Sweden to the west and the Novgorod Republic to the east. However, as it is still the case in present times, ownership of land and “coveting thy neighbour’s goods” causes everlasting problems and Novgorod went to war with Sweden no fewer than 26 times over the land borders and the issue was not finally settled until August 12, 1323, when Sweden and Novgorod signed the Treaty of Nöteborg, which legalised their border for the first time. The Treaty allocated just the eastern part of Finland, such as Karelia, to Novgorod, whilst the western and southern parts of Finland were given to Sweden. As a consequence of this Swedish control in the west, the Swedish legal and social systems took root in Finland. During the Swedish period, Finland was merely a group of provinces and not a national entity and it was governed from Stockholm, which was the capital of the Finnish provinces at that time.
Gaining control of land is one thing, keeping the land is another. The great powerhouse of Sweden began to wane in the early 1700’s and Russia, which had absorbed Novgorod in the seventeenth century, began to look covetously at its western neighbour. When Sweden lost its position as a great power in the early 18th century, Russian pressure on Finland increased, and finally Russia conquered Finland in the 1808–1809 war with Sweden and the second chapter of Finnish history began.
After conquered by the Russian armies of Tsar Alexander I, Russia took control of Finland in 1809 and the country became an autonomous Grand Duchy, the head of state being the Grand Duke, the Russian Emperor, whose representative in Finland was the Governor General.
The third and final chapter in the history of Finland came in 1917 following the Russian Revolution when Finland declared itself independent. The following year the country was in tumult, divided by civil war brought on by an attempted coup by left-wing parties. An attempt was made to turn the country into a kingdom but this also failed. The Civil War finally ended in May 1918 when the government defeated the rebels and Finland became a republic in the summer of 1919.
So why the history lesson? Mainly for two reasons. My featured artist today lived between 1865 and 1931 and witnessed the changes in the history of his birthplace and was also part of the process of Finnicization, the changing of one’s personal names from other languages, in his case Swedish into Finnish in 1907. During the era of National Romanticism in Finland, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many people, especially Fennomans, who were supporters of a nationalist political movement in 19th-century Finland that wanted to raise Finnish to the national language of the country, finnicized their previously Swedish family names.
Today’s featured artist was born Axel Waldemar Gallén. His father was Peter Wilhelm Gallén who came from the small town of Lemu close to the city of Turku and whose family owned a farm named Kallela. Peter Gallén left the family home and went to study for a public service career, and in 1840 he succeeded his brother as police chief of Tyrvää. In 1841, when he was twenty-four-years-old, Peter married his elder brother’s adopted daughter Sofia Antoinette and put money into the Vanni estate which Sophie had inherited. The couple went on to have five children. In 1855 Sophie died and three years later, in 1858, Peter married for the second time.
His second wife was Mathilda Wahlroos, the daughter of a Pori sea captain and in 1862 Peter Gallén became one of the cashiers at the Pori office of the Bank of Finland. Peter and his second wife, Mathilda, had seven children in all, which made Peter a father of twelve, the third of these children born to Peter and Mathilda on April 26th, 1865 was Axel Waldemar Gallén.
In 1867 Peter Gallén left his job at the bank in Pori and returned to the Tyrvää region with his large family, including Axel, who was then two years old, and bought Jaatsi Farm, and on the land, he built himself a spacious residence. It was a rural environment and for the children it was a case of living and playing amongst unspoiled nature. Once settled in, Peter became a lawyer in a private practice in Tyrvää.
Axel had developed a love of art during his early days and his mother, Mathilda Gallén, who was a keen amateur painter, wanted her son to have an artistic career but her husband vehemently disagreed and was adamant that this was not a suitable career path for his son and so, in 1876, when Axel was eleven years old, he, along with two of his brothers Uno and Walter, was sent away to Helsinki to attend the Swedish-language grammar school. He was very disinterested in what he was being taught as all he could think about was art and all he had to console himself was to attend the evening course at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society from 1878 to 1881 and later the Central School for Applied Arts in 1880 and 1881. Axel’s father Peter died in 1879 and Axel’s life and future took another route – a route he had always wanted to travel along – a route towards the world of art, so when his grammar school education ended in 1881 he enrolled as a day student at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society. In 1883 he transferred to the model class, where his teacher was the Finnish landscape and portrait painter, Fredrik Ahlstedt.
In 1883 and in 1884 Axel was taught art by Albert Edelfelt, one of the first Finnish artists to attain international recognition and was one of the founders of the Realist art movement in Finland.
Axel Gallén also spent time studying at the private academy run by the Finnish genre painter and art professor Adolf von Becker from 1882 to 1884 and did drawings at the University’s dissecting room.
Adolf von Becker was his most dependable teacher in the area of French realism, and he greatly influenced Axel when it came to demonstrate the technique of plein air painting. One such work is Axel’s Boy with a Crow. Axel completed the painting and people were astounded by the finished work. What amazed people was that his depiction was so like many of the works by the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage and yet Axel had never been to France and seen the work of this great painter.
It is believed that Axel had learnt about the work of Bastien-Lepage through Albert Edelfelt who had lived in Paris and had been won over by the outdoor realism paintings of Lepage. The peasant boy depicted in the painting, Boy with a Crow, was known to Axel and he talked about the staging of the depiction, saying that the secret of his success with the painting was persuading the boy to believe that he could tame the crow by sprinkling salt on its tail feathers!
Probably persuaded by Edelfelt, Axel Waldemar Gallén, moved to Paris in the Autumn of 1884 and went to study at Académie Julian and the Atelier Cormon run by the French painter, Fernand Cormon. Axel studied at these establishments for the next five years. Equally as important to the artistic training he received at the Academy was the people he met. He recorded in his journal the bohemian lives of his artist and writer friends, such as the Swedish playwright and novelist, August Strindberg. He also spent time visiting art exhibitions, such as the Spring 1885 Jules Bastien-Lepage Memorial Exhibition when more than two hundred of the French painter’s pictures were exhibited at the École des Beaux-Arts, a year after the great man’s death.
Axel Gallén returned home in 1885. This was the year he painted his well-known work Akka ja kissa (‘Old Woman and Cat’) at the town of Salo. The elderly woman depicted in the painting was a local peasant who lived with her sheep. The initial painting just depicted the woman and the cat and the background was added once Axel returned to his studio in Tyrvää. The painting was a classic example of naturalism or rural naturalism which follows the concept that truth was more valuable than beauty and once again we can see the influence of Bastien-Lepage in this work. The painting was exhibited at the Finnish Art Society in the autumn of 1886 but opinions on the merit of the work were divided. The conservatives believed the painting to be ugly and the depiction of the woman, repulsive, whilst the liberals acclaimed the work for its realistic qualities.
Axel returned to Paris in late 1865 thanks to financial help from his mother and a government grant. Whilst in the French capital he completed a portrait of Herman Frithiof Antell, a licentiate of medicine and one of the most generous benefactors in Finnish cultural history.
So pleased was Antell with the portrait that two years later he commissioned Axel Gallén to paint a nude, which is now known as Démasquée (Uncovered). This is one of just a handful of nude paintings completed by Gallén. It was done by him in his Paris studio and it is the epitome of realism. The naked woman, almost certainly a French model, is seen seated on a colourful cover made up in the typical Finnish ryijy weave. This is not a depiction of a well-endowed beauty. This is a true depiction of an ordinary woman who seems very relaxed and happy to be sitting naked in front of the artist. Another aspect of realism is the fact that Axel depicted pubic hair in his portrayal of the woman which was unusual in European art.
Once again Alex returned to Finland in the summer of 1886 and this time settled down in the sparsely populated area around the small town of Korpilahti which lies in Central Finland. It is a beautiful area with over two hundred lakes as well as awe-inspiring mountains. It was during his stay here that Axel carried on with his rural realism depictions.
In the winter of 1886 Axel moved from Korpilahti to the Central Finnish town of Keuruu and stayed at Ekola Croft which appears in a number of his paintings such as The Ekola Croft in Evening Sunlight which he completed in 1889. The croft was on the shore of the large Keurusselkä lake and must have been an idyllic location.
Another painting he completed around this time was one entitled The First Lesson (also known as Ensi opetus). The setting is the interior of a log cabin and it depicts a father teaching his young daughter.
In the next part of my blog looking at the life and artwork of Axel Gallén (Akseli Gallén-Kallela) I will be delving into his later life, his marriage and his fascination with the Kalevala, the 19th-century work of epic poetry created and compiled by Elias Lonnrot.
besides Wilipedia, much of the information about the artist was gleaned from a number of websites, including:
Ateneum Art Museum: https://ateneum.fi/nayttelyarkisto/akseli-gallen-kallela-150-years/?lang=en
Kallela Museum: http://www.gallen-kallela.fi/en/akseli-gallen-kallela-and-tarvaspaa/akseli-gallen-kallelas-lifespan-and-timeline/
National Biography of Finland: https://kansallisbiografia.fi/english/person/3194