Marja Sakari, PhD, Director, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Also published in Sointu Fritze and Lene Wahlsten (eds.), Colour & Light – The Legacy of Impressionism. Ateneum Publications Vol. 169. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 2023, 51–65. Transl. Wif Stenger
Worst of all was a corner that contained landscape paintings, each smudgier than the last, because they all looked as if the artist had squeezed a lot of colour into the palette and then slapped it onto the canvas, repeating the operation until the painting was finished. It had a sickening effect on me, not figuratively but in a physical sense.
Letter from Helena Westermarck to her aunt Alexandra Blomqvist, 30 April 1880
In the late 19th century, nearly all professional Finnish artists headed to Paris. There, in the world’s art capital, they confronted everything new that was developing in the visual arts – including Impressionism. However, in the 1800s, none of the Finnish artists joined this movement that radically changed the art world, nor did many other Nordic artists. One of the central starting points of the ‘Colour & Light’ exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum is the question of why the effects of Impressionism were not seen in Finnish art until the first two decades of the 20th century.
Finnish artists of the day, such as the influential Albert Edelfelt, did however recognise the impact of Impressionism. In a series of articles accompanying a major exhibition of French and Belgian art that opened at the Ateneum in early 1904, Edelfelt wrote that Impressionism had affected almost all painters in some way, although, in his view, the movement itself was already history: ‘Other movements have come and gone – such as so-called Symbolism, but what is certain is that the Impressionist painters have taken art forward by a considerable step and that all of us who use a brush have learnt a lot from them.’ This exhibition of Franco-Belgian art, which took place 119 years ago, is one of the starting points for the ‘Colour & Light’ exhibition and the subject of my article. The 1904 exhibition was part of the process that led to the brightening of the palette of almost all Finnish artists in the 1910s.
 Helena Westermarck’s letter to Alexandra (Sanny) Blomqvist, 30 April 1880. Blomqvist collection. National Library of Finland, Helsinki. The original letter has been lost.
 Albert Edelfelt. ‘Den fransk-belgiska utställningen i Ateneum’, Helsingfors-Posten, 30 January1904.
 Earlier, a 1901 exhibition of French art at the Ateneum focused on naturalism and more traditional art. Although it featured the likes of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley, they were barely mentioned by the critics. The main attention was on artists who represented more traditional painting, e.g. Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Carolus-Durand, who are lesser-known today. See J.J. Tikkanen. ‘Franska konstutställningen i Ateneum’, Hufvudstadsbladet, 6 October 1901; ‘Kirjallisuutta ja taidetta: Ranskalaisten taiteilijain näyttely’, Uusi Suometar, 21 September 1901; ‘Kirjallisuutta ja taidetta: Ranskalainen taidenäyttely Helsinkiin’, Mikkelin Sanomat, 25 July 1901.
Featured image: Catalogue de l’Exposition d’Artistes Français et Belges, Helsingfors 1904. The catalogue for the exhibition of Franco-Belgian art organised at the Ateneum in 1904. The artworks and the prices are listed in the catalogue, e.g. Monet (nos. 40 and 41), Pissarro and Puvis de Chavannes.
Finnish National Gallery Library
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Ainur Nasretdin
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