Anders Ekman, Study of Eyes, before 1855 Lilli Törnudd Archive. Archive Collections, Finnish National Gallery Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Ainur Nasretdin

The Ateneum to the Backbone – 19th-Century Anatomy Drawings in the Finnish National Gallery Collections

Laura Nissinen, Doctor of Arts, MA student, University of Helsinki

This article is published following the author’s three-month research internship at the Finnish National Gallery


The skull

A group of nine young women wearing skirts and aprons are sitting in an empty interior. Beside them is a drawing on an easel, depicting a female form. Several electric lamps with shades made from bent cardboard are hanging from the ceiling. Most of the women have their heads turned away from the camera, and instead are looking at the person sitting in the middle of the group, who holds a human skull in her lap. She holds the skull softly, almost tenderly, in her hands, looking down at it intensively. Three of the women are holding large palettes and long-handled paintbrushes. No-one is smiling.

The scene described is the subject of a photograph taken in the Ateneum Art Museum in 1894. A short text, handwritten in Swedish, can be seen at the bottom of the backing card framing the photo: ‘In the atelier, spring 1894’[1] (Fig. 1). The space shown in the picture is the hall located on the third floor of the Ateneum, built in 1887. At the time the photo was taken, the hall was the painting studio of the Finnish Art Society’s Drawing School. The women in the photograph are students and the barefoot person sitting a little apart from the group is the model, her face familiar from the unfinished drawing on the easel. The group’s teacher, Elin Danielson, is squatting in front of the group, her dark dress carefully folded around her feet. She is looking closely at the person holding the skull, who is her cousin Onni Bäckström. The serious mood and the position of the skull create a strange atmosphere. Still, the reason for presenting the skull in the picture is the same as showing us the painting palettes and brushes. These women want us to know that they are artists.

The skull, or in other words the head of someone who once loved, dreamed, and sang, may look eerie to us today, but for an art student in the 19th century it would have been a common subject. In fact, the history of the skulls, skeletons, and other bone fragments placed in the service of artists’ tuition is as long as the narrative of the art academies, dating back to the 16th century.[2] Their role was to demonstrate what we humans are made of, the correct bodily measurements, and how the parts functioned together when people moved. These human remains worked as lifeless models doomed patiently to serve art seemingly for an eternity.

The body of research

At the beginning of my internship my research interest was the relation between art and science in the 19th century, but the topic was too extensive and needed a new focus that would suit the Finnish National Gallery’s Art Collection and Archival Collections.[3] When my tutors, senior researcher Hanna-Leena Paloposki and curator Anne-Maria Pennonen, suggested the theme of anatomy, I knew it was just the idea I had been looking for. This solution helped to define the research focus and to identify the relevant material in the National Gallery’s large collections. In addition to skeletons, I searched for other anatomical subjects, such as studies of muscles and other drawings of human bodies, body parts and of objects depicting human bodies. To limit the amount of the material I chose to focus on works representing inanimate models and objects, leaving aside works made using live models. The final selected material includes anatomical studies of the human body, drawings of bodily representations copied from drawing books or drawing manuals or similar examples, and drawings copied from plaster casts (Fig. 2). As there has been no previous research on the topic of anatomy concerning the collections of the Finnish National Gallery, the first research questions were all about the visual material: what kind of imagery relating to the theme of human anatomy exists in the Art Collection and Archive Collections of the National Gallery, by whom and from what period? The subsequent questions I have attempted to answer are more extensive: how did the emphasis on the human form manifest itself in the artist’s education in the 19th century and what kind of knowledge of the human body was considered important to the artists of the time?

This article is developed taking into consideration a relatively large amount of imagery. In the Art Collection and Archive Collections of the Finnish National Gallery, studies of skeletons and muscles can be found by Robert Wilhelm Ekman (1808–73), Carl Eneas Sjöstrand (1828–1906), Anders Ekman (1833–55), Maria Wiik (1853–1928), Gunnar Berndtson (1854–95), Albert Edelfelt (1854–1905), and Magnus Enckell (1870–1925). I have also found works copied from drawing manuals by Anders Ekman, Oscar Kleineh (1846–1919), Maria Wiik, Albert Edelfelt, Torsten Wasastjerna (1863–1924) and Pekka Halonen (1865–1933). Drawings copied from plaster casts also exist by Arvid Liljelund (1844–99), Oscar Kleineh, Gunnar Berndtson, and Torsten Wasastjerna. In addition, there are some individual drawings on the topic by Ferdinand von Wright (1822–1906), Johannes Takanen (1849–85), Alfred William Finch (1854–1930), and Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946).

The list of the artists or works in this article is not exhaustive due to the time frame of my internship. Quite probably, there is further material relating to the theme of anatomy in the Finnish National Gallery’s vast collections. This article doesn’t include finished works of art in the traditional sense. The majority of the works presented are student works, made during the first years of artistic training. The date of the works is not certain in all cases and only a small part of the imagery has been exhibited or published before. Still, most of the visual material displayed in this research article has been digitised and catalogued in the Finnish National Gallery’s collection management system.

[1] The original text in Swedish: ‘På atelieren våren 1894’.

[2] Susanna Pettersson. Suomen Taideyhdistyksestä Ateneumiin. Fredrik Cygnaeus, Carl Gustaf Estlander ja taidekokoelman roolit. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden seura, Valtion taidemuseo, 2008, 158; Altti Kuusamo. ‘Akatemian idea ja taiteiden järjestelmä’, in Riikka Stewen (ed.), Silmän oppivuodet. Ajatuksia taiteesta ja taiteen opettamisesta. Helsinki: Kuvataideakatemia 1998, 23–24.

[3] The Finnish National Gallery is Finland’s national cultural institution, which comprises the Ateneum Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and the Sinebrychoff Art Museum. It maintains the Finnish National Gallery Collection, which includes artworks, archival materials, and artefacts. The Ateneum Art Museum’s Art Collection presents the development of Finnish art from the 18th century to the 20th century.

Featured image: Anders Ekman, Study of eyes, before 1855
Lilli Törnudd Archive. Archive Collections, Finnish National Gallery
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Ainur Nasretdin

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