Editorial: The Secret History of an Old Master

Kirsi Eskelinen, PhD, Museum Director, Sinebrychoff Art Museum


November 25, 2015


The Sinebrychoff Art Museum houses the most significant collection of Old Masters in Finland. The collection has grown as a result of several donations, the earliest ones dating back to the time of Grand Dutchy of Finland in the 19th century. Among the most important is the collection of Paul and Fanny Sinebrychoff which was donated in 1921 and is on show on the 1st floor of the museum. The works on display in a part this section of the museum are included in a faithful reconstruction of the Sinebrychoffs’ home as it was during the 1910s (see photograph above). The Museum’s collection spreads over several hundreds of years, from the 14th to the 19th century, and includes paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings and antiquities.

The research activity conducted in the Museum is focusing on the works of art from many different points of view and often has a multi-scholarly approach. The paintings can be studied in order to clarify questions concerning the authenticity, the attribution or the dating for example. When planning the conservation of a work of art, it is first studied technically. The collaboration of art historian and conservator is essential in the conservation process, as well as in the research into the work and actually a conservation treatment offers a natural opportunity to study the work in question more thoroughly.

The Rembrandt painting Reading Monk (1661) is considered one of the jewels of the Finnish National Gallery. There are no other paintings by Rembrandt in Finnish collections. This painting has been traditionally attributed to Rembrandt and it bears his signature. However, recently some doubts have been put forward concerning the attribution. The painting has been studied using various methods of technical analysis during previous decades, but it lacks a coherent and overall consideration. Sinebrychoff Art Museum together with the Conservation Department is now planning an international research project on the Rembrandt painting combining the expertise of scientists, art historians and conservators using modern technical methods of study. We hope that the painting will finally reveal its secret, whether or not it was executed by the great Dutch master.

Featured image: Paul Sinebrychoff in his study in 1910s, photographed by Signe Brander. Photo: Archive Collections, Finnish National Gallery

Conferences: NORDIK 2015, Reykjavik

NORDIK Becomes a Full Association

Riitta Ojanperä, Director of Collections Management, Finnish National Gallery, has been a Finnish member of the NORDIK board since 2012. Here she explains the exciting new developments that are placing NORDIK more firmly on the art-historical map

The NORDIK Committee For Art History, which has been active since 1983, has been a great example of the potential of professional networking and collaboration. The organisation of 11 triennial conferences has been based on a scholarly urge to meet the intellectual challenges of art history.

The art history departments of several universities in the Nordic countries, as well as many museum organisations, have been committed to fostering NORDIK’s goals. The network’s continuity has been assured by a functioning board with members representing both the academia and museum fields in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Nevertheless, the need to build the Committee’s future on a more solid institutional ground had been stated several years ago. This goal was accomplished when the Committee’s General Assembly met in May this year in Reykjavik, in the context of the 11th NORDIK conference, the first to have been arranged in Iceland.

At the meeting, the General Assembly accepted new regulations for the association named NORDIK (The Nordic Association of Art Historians). One basic advantage of the change from a network to a legal body in the form of an association is the opening of new practical ways for potential fundraising in the future.

The Association’s purpose and its aims, though, have not changed. It still exists to promote co-operation in the Nordic countries, to provide information, and to strengthen contacts between the Nordic and international art history communities. To fulfil its purpose it arranges the NORDIK conference. In addition to this, the new regulations state that the Association can help to arrange other conferences and symposiums, produce publications, and take initiatives that promote research and the education of scholars.

According to NORDIK’s long-established schedule, the next international conference will take place in three years time, in Copenhagen in 2018. The present chair of the Association is Dr Hlynur Helgason, from Iceland, and the chair of the next conference’s organising group is Dr. Henrik Holm from Denmark.

Featured image: Lars-Gunnar Nordström, Composition, 1952, serigraphy, 26,7cm x 44,8cm, Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jouko Könönen

For more information, please visit the NORDIK webpage http://nordicarthistory.org/ or contact the Association’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/804379882941687/.



NORDIK Conferences 1984–2015

Nordic Art around the Turn of the Century
Helsinki, Finland

Nordic Sponsors of the Arts
Gothenburg, Sweden

Influence and Exchange
Ry, Denmark

The Identity of Art History
Geilo, Norway

Art After 1945
Turku, Finland

The History of Art History
Uppsala, Sweden

Aarhus, Denmark

Tradition and Visual Culture
Bergen, Norway

Mind and Matter
Jyväskylä, Finland

Presentation/Representation/Repression, The Critical Production of Display and Interpretation in Art History
Stockholm, Sweden

Mapping Uncharted Territories
Reykjavik, Iceland



Professional Match-making

Interview by Gill Crabbe

The Ateneum Art Museum Director Susanna Pettersson has a close relationship with the Nordic Committee for Art History. Here she explains the vital role played by this innovative organisation

The Director of Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum, Susanna Pettersson, has been a guiding influence in the recent history of the Nordic Committee for Art History (NORDIK). When the Committee was first set up in Helsinki in 1984 to promote research networks between Nordic art historians, it identified its main task as organising a triennial NORDIK conference. Nine conferences and almost 30 years on, that task was entrusted to Pettersson when, as chair of the Board from 2010–12, she presided over the organisation of the 10th NORDIK conference, which took place in Stockholm in 2012.

One of the key features of NORDIK is its commitment to bring together scholars from both university and museum contexts, as historically these have been separate organisational strands in the field of art history. As Pettersson explains: ‘If you take the example of the history of the Ateneum, the key people who were Board members of the Finnish Art Society – one of the predecessors of the FNG – were art historians working at the university, so at that time they had feet in both camps. That was the situation until the Second World War.

‘However, after the War people working in the museums formed one team and those at the universities formed another, and they didn’t really communicate too much. This situation continued until the early 1980s – it was very much the case in Finland but it was also the case in other European countries, so setting up the Nordic Committee for Art History as a network brought together people from both camps.

Pettersson firmly believes that the NORDIK conference is a game-changer in bringing art historians together in this way. Among the many benefits of the conference, she identifies three key advantages.

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Conference Abstracts from four Finnish delegates


Ålandian Landscape – There’s Always a Meaning in a Seemingly Meaningless Landscape
Anna-Maria Wiljanen, PhD, Executive Director, UPM-Kymmene Cultural Foundation

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From the Blade of Grass to Musical Landscapes – Japonisme and Musicality in Nordic Art
Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, PhD, Senior Curator, Ateneum Art Museum

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Tyko Sallinen and the Marginalisation of the Russian Avant-garde in his Art
Timo Huusko, PhDLic., Chief Curator, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery

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Technological Utopia versus Cultural Dystopia – Discussing Peripheral Modernisms and Modern Cultural Identities in Finland after the Second World War
Riitta Ojanperä, PhD, Director, Collections Management, Finnish National Gallery

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The Adoration of the Magi – a Masterpiece

Kirsi Eskelinen, Director, Sinebrychoff Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery

First published in Art’s Memory – Layers of Conservation. Edited by Reetta Kuojärvi-Närhi, Maija Santala, Ari Tanhuanpää, Anne-Mari Forss. Sinebrychoffin taidemuseon julkaisuja (Sinebrychoff Art Museum Publications). Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Sinebrychoff Art Museum, 2005

Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä had bought this painting of the Adoration of the Magi in Venice in 1898. [1] According to Osvald Sirén it would have been the jewel of Aspelin’s collection had it not been in such poor condition. Sirén, however, had deeper insight when he attributed this ‘beautiful ruin’ to Giovanni Boccati in 1921. [2] The abundant ornamentality and fluent composition of the Late Gothic were, according to Sirén, characteristic of the work owned by Aspelin, which he associated in terms of style with Gentile da Fabriano and particularly with a painting of the same title by him in Florence. The figures of the Virgin and children, the nature of the background scenery and the decorative details of the painting in turn pointed to Boccati. Sirén compared this painting to an altarpiece predella painted by Boccati in 1447 (Pala del Pergolato, Perugia), with its theme of the Passion and especially the scene of Christ bearing His cross. In the latter work, the marine landscape and the town wall with its towers resembled the Aspelin painting. [3] Sirén dates the work in Aspelin’s collection to before the Perugia predella of 1447. [4]

[1] Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä observed the connections of the painting with the works of Gentile da Fabriano in his notes, where he wrote “Tuscan-Umbrian in the manner of Gentile da Fabriano”. Literature Archives of the Finnish Literature Society, folder A469, Helsinki. I am indebted to Hanne Selkokari for this information.

[2] Sirén, Osvald, 1921. Tidiga Italienska Målningar i Finska Samlingar. Stenmans konstrevy no 4–5, 1921, 44.

[3] Sirén 1921, 43–44.

[4] Sirén 1921, 45. Sirén leaves any closer dating open by noting: ”… and have cause to assume that he was already active several years previously.”

Featured image: Giovanni Boccati, The Adoration of the Magi, (1440–1445), oil on panel, 80cm x 53,2cm, Aspelin-Haapkylä Collection, Sinebrychoff Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

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Pastel Painting – a Rococo Beauty in the Eyes of a Painter

Reetta Kuojärvi-Närhi, Curator, Sinebrychoff Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery

First published in Art’s Memory – Layers of Conservation. Edited by Reetta Kuojärvi-Närhi, Maija Santala, Ari Tanhuanpää, Anne-Mari Forss. Sinebrychoffin taidemuseon julkaisuja (Sinebrychoff Art Museum Publications). Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Sinebrychoff Art Museum, 2005

The pastel painting in the Paul and Fanny Sinebrychoff Art Collection entitled Countess Poaton shows a young woman with her face depicted in a slanting position, slightly inclined towards the right of the viewer. The front of her dress is decorated with a beautiful border of flowers and lace, with a lock of her dark-brown hair hanging freely over it. The hair forms small rosettes as if by chance. On top of the young woman’s white-powdered coiffure is a bouquet of small blue flowers. A blue scarf of the same hue directs the viewer’s gaze. This type of treatment of the subject is typical of portraits by Gustaf Lundberg, who repeated certain elements from one year to another, with only the features of the face altered in a slightly flattering fashion to resemble the subject.

Pastel paintings are at their best when viewed in a slightly subdued light and at a greater distance than usual. In some places the execution of this portrait appears clumsy at close range; the red of the cheeks is clearly striped and the skin around the nose seems exaggeratedly dark. Yet the bodice of the dress is executed with great finesse, showing the almost dream-like delicateness of pastel painting at its best. When the work is put in its presumed contemporary lighting, the viewer is taken by the beauty of the whole painting and the skill of the artist. It is the work of an artist who in an obviously explicit manner left out everything that is superfluous, while achieving his planned goal of a charming pastel painting.

Featured image: Gustaf Lundberg, Countess Poaton (date unknown). Sinebrychoff Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

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