Albert Edelfelt, The Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 1887, oil on canvas, 141.5cm x 186.5cm Antell Collections, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen

Albert Edelfelt – The Golden Boy of Finnish Art

Anne-Maria Pennonen, PhD, curator and Hanne Selkokari, PhD, curator, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum

Also published in French as ‘Albert Edelfelt, fils prodige de l’art finlandais’, in Anne-Charlotte Cathelineau (ed.), Albert Edelfelt. Lumières de Finlande. Paris: Paris Musées, 2022, p. 31–40, and in English in the Albert Edelfelt exhibition catalogue by the Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, in Spring 2023. Transl. Wif Stenger

A Finnish or French artist?

When Albert Edelfelt (1854–1905) went to Paris to study in 1874 as a young artist, there were high hopes for him – and indeed he lived up to those expectations. Early overviews of Finnish art have highlighted Edelfelt’s victories and success, but also the contradictions in his art. Edelfelt’s teacher, Adolf von Becker (1831–1909), firmly believed that Paris was the only place to learn to paint. Von Becker wanted to finally free Finnish art from a German ‘pleasantness and leash of contemplation’ and instead tie it to the great movements and trends of art.[1] Edelfelt followed his teacher’s advice after spending a year studying history painting in Antwerp (1873–74). He became a role model, helping to spread the teachings of the ‘French school’ among Finnish artists, according to the art historian Eliel Aspelin (1847–1917), who knew Edelfelt when he was young.[2]

According to Johannes Öhqvist (1861–1949), a versatile German-speaking cultural journalist, the French school had taught Edelfelt a cool, scientific matter-of-factness that sharpened his mind, enabling him to see reality more clearly.[3] At the same time, however, Edelfelt was seen as a paradoxical figure in his homeland, where there were doubts as to whether he was a portrayer of folk life or a salon painter. For Edelfelt, Paris was the centre of the art world. He was ready to help and support his compatriots who made their way to the city, serving as a skilful support for them and as a strong role model on the path towards naturalism and realism.[4]

However, the leaders of the Finnish art establishment found the French influence in the arts a constant source of irritation. On the one hand, they understood the value of Paris and the professionalism and ideas that it generated, but there was also a desire to create through them something genuine, a purely national art in Finland.[5]

In 1902, the younger generation of critics praised Edelfelt as versatile and acknowledged him as the best-known Finnish artist on the continent.[6] He was an artist ‘who has no national prejudices and whose perception and technique are cosmopolitan. […] a thoroughly sophisticated artist whose cultivation is both innate and acquired.’[7] According to the architect and critic Jac. Ahrenberg (1847–1914), though, Edelfelt represented Finnish art’s ‘Swedish element’ in line with ‘his race, blood, family background, upbringing and spirit’.[8]

[1] Johannes Öhqvist. Suomen taiteen historia. Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Kirja, 1912, 330.

[2] Eliel Aspelin. Suomalaisen taiteen historia pääpiirteissään. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1891, 81. In 1915, Aspelin published his Edelfelt memoirs I–V and his correspondence in his book Muoto- ja muistikuvia II (Helsinki: Otava).

[3] Öhqvist, Suomen taiteen historia, 348−49.

[4] Riitta Konttinen. Sammon takojat. Nuoren Suomen taiteilijat ja suomalaisuuden kuvat. Helsinki: Otava, 2001, 62−63, 65−67.

[5] Aspelin, Suomalaisen taiteen historia pääpiirteissään, 81−84; Öhqvist, Suomen taiteen historia.

[6] Gustaf Strengell. ‘Albert Edelfelt’, Euterpe 1902:1, (2−6) 2.

[7] Gustaf Strengell. ‘Albert Edelfelt: taiteilijariemujuhla’, Valvoja 1904:7−8, 417−41.

[8] Jac. Ahrenberg. ‘Edelfelts utställning’, Finsk Tidskrift 1902:1, 310−12; Öhqvist, Suomen taiteen historia, 330−35; Konttinen, Sammon takojat, 67.

Featured image: Albert Edelfelt, The Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 1887, oil on canvas, 141.5cm x 186.5cm. Antell Collections, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen
Public domain. This image of a work of art is released under a CC0 licence, and can be freely used because the copyright (70 full calendar years after the death of the artist) has expired.

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