Sigrid Schauman, Italian Landscape, 1930s, oil on canvas, mounted on cardboard, 44.5cm x 35cm Antell Collections, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

Finnish Women Artists in the Modern World

Anu Utriainen, MA, Senior Researcher, Ateneum Art Museum / Finnish National Gallery

Also in Anu Allas and Tiina Abel (eds.), Creating the Self: Emancipating Woman in Estonian and Finnish Art. Tallinn: Art Museum of Estonia, 2019 (to be published in December 2019)

The works of Finnish women artists, and the choices they made both in their lives and careers show how women worked independently in this demanding profession in the early decades of the 20th century. They were forced to strike a balance between expectations and restrictions arising from their gender and their professional goals, as well as from their personal desires. Women who established professional careers in art refused to make concessions regarding the content of their work; they had a firm idea of themselves as artists and were well aware of their abilities and talents. For example, Ellen Thesleff considered herself a creative genius, regardless of gender, while Helene Schjerfbeck wanted to be treated and addressed first and foremost as an artist, without reference to her gender.[1] What is noteworthy is the uncompromising attitude of these women towards their work. Many of them were able to renew themselves as artists even at advanced ages and to learn new techniques.

Although gender was not an obstacle to studies in the fine arts in Finland, many women artists at the turn of the 20th century were nevertheless forced to make choices in their private lives in order to continue in the profession. For example, those who remained unmarried included Fanny Churberg, Ester Helenius, Helmi Kuusi, Sigrid Schauman, Helene Schjerfbeck, Ellen Thesleff and Maria Wiik. Thesleff believed that solitude was part of creative work and a sign of a strong ego.[2] Many others found spouses or partners who were also active in art and culture, among them Ina Colliander, Elin Danielson, Hilda Flodin, Greta Hällfors, Tove Jansson, Tuulikki Pietilä, Elga Sesemann and Venny Soldan.[3] Sigrid Schauman’s solution was perhaps the most radical: she did not marry the father of her daughter and decided to raise her alone. At the time, this was exceptional by any standards and was certainly not socially acceptable for an upper-class woman such as herself.

Women played an important role in the construction of the field of art in Finland in the latter half of the 19th century and later in the portrayal of a modern civic society. They were also bold and innovative, experimenting with styles and forms, as well as techniques. In this essay, I discuss modernist trends in Finnish art from the particular viewpoint of the construction of professional careers for women artists.[4]


[1] Konttinen, Riitta 2004. Oma tie. Helene Schjerfbeckin elämä. Helsinki: Otava, 249.

[2] Konttinen, Riitta 2017. Täältä tullaan! Naistaiteilijat modernin murroksessa. Helsinki: Siltala, 54.

[3] Ina Colliander’s husband was the author Tito Colliander; Elin Danielson married the Italian artist Raffaello Gambogi. Hilda Flodin was married to the painter Juho Rissanen, and Greta Hällfors to the artist Sulho Sipilä. Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä were partners for several decades. Elga Sesemann married a fellow student, the artist Seppo Näätänen. Venny Soldan was married to the author Juhani Aho (Brofeldt).

[4] Even though women played a significant role in the Finnish art scene at the turn of the century, only about 10 per cent of professional artists were women. The number of works acquired for museum collections at the time was the same: around 10 per cent were made by women.

Featured image: Sigrid Schauman, Italian Landscape, 1930s, oil on canvas, mounted on cardboard, 44.5cm x 35cm. Antell Collections, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen#

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