Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.
There has to be an enticement to become an artist if one or both of your parents or siblings is a successful painter. Maybe such a family connection is to do with artistic genes. My featured painter today had the perfect start on her road to an artistic future as her father and her maternal grandfather, Johan Gustaf Sandberg, were accomplished painters and must have nurtured her love of sketching and art when she was young. In my next blog I will look at the life and works of the talented daughter, the landscape painter, Anna Palm, later Anna Palm de Rosa, but today I want to concentrate on the talents of her father.
Gustaf William Palm was born in Norra Åsum, a small village close to the town of Kristianstad in Southern Sweden on March 14th 1810. He went to school in Kristianstad and when his regular schooling was completed in 1825 he picked up some work in Lund through the good auspices of a friend, Johan Rabbén, who arranged for him to complete some illustrations for a book on European algae written by Carl Agardh. In 1828, when Gustaf was eighteen years of age, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Stockholm.
Gustaf Palm was greatly influenced by the works of the acclaimed Swedish romantic landscape painter, Carl Johan Fahlcrantz, whose paintings were often in the form of a somewhat diffused romantic mood with warm, dark colours.
Another influential figure for Gustaf Palm was his Academy professor, and father-in-law, Johan Gustaf Sandberg, a foremost history painter whose works of art often depicted Norse mythology, folklore and Swedish history. One such painting was Gustav Vasa Speaks to the Dalecarlians at Mora, in which we see Gustav Ericksson trying to drum up support with the people of Dalarna in his fight against the Swedish king Christian II during the Swedish War of Liberation in 1521.
Whilst at the Academy Gustaf Palm received many awards for his work and was commissioned to produce illustrations for Sven Nilsson’s book, Skandinavisk Fauna and Sandberg’s illustrated book, One Year in Sweden. In the summer of 1833 Gustaf and fellow artist, Mikael Gustaf Anckarsvärd , travelled to Norway and Norrland on a painting trip and one of Gustaf Palm’s early paintings from this journey was entitled Motifs of Norway which he completed in 1835.
In 1837 Gustaf developed a problem with his eyes and travelled to Berlin to find a cure for the disease. En route he stopped off in Copenhagen where he met the Danish painter, J C Dahl. He remained in Berlin for a year before moving to Vienna in 1838. In Vienna he exhibited some of his work at the Vienna Academy of Arts. His art works depicting Scandanavian landscapes were very popular and the Austrian public deemed his rugged landscapes to be quite exotic and they sold well.
Gustaf Palm began to be influenced by the popular Austrian writer and landscape artist, Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller whose work was in great demand at the time.
In 1840 Gustaf Palm left Austria and travelled to Venice, first visiting Hungary and Trieste. He arrived in Venice in the November of that year and soon set about sketching the various facets of this beautiful city, the canals and surrounding lagoon and these he took with him and converted into paintings when he went onto Rome at the end of July 1841. He was to remain in the Italian capital for the next ten years.
One of his early paintings during his stay in Rome was View of Ariccia which he completed in 1841 and was a landscape work depicting the town which lies thirty kilometres south-east of the capital. It is now housed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Rome at the time was awash with visiting artists. Tourists flowed through the Italian capital and were often on the look out for something to remind them of their visit and so a painting depicting the city sights or the outlying countryside was a must-have thing. There was a German artist colony and there was a Swedish art colony, to just mention a few, and Gustaf Palm soon became acquainted with the artists. He made friends with the Swedish sculptors Johan Niclas Byström and Bengt Fogelberg and became a lifelong friend of the Swedish watercolour painter, Egron Sellif Lundgren.
Gustaf completed many landscape paintings depicting the hills surrounding Rome, views of Tivoli with the catacombs as well as may of the small picturesque towns close to the city.
In December 1851 Gustaf left the Italian capital and moved to Paris and yet he continued to use his sketches from his time in Italy to complete paintings and seemed to dismiss the Parisian surroundings. In October 1852 he left Paris and travelled home to Stockholm. When he returned home he was elected a member of the Royal Academy. From his Swedish base he made a number of painting trips to central Sweden and up to the far north to Norrland. In 1856, Gustaf Palm married Eva Sandberg, the daughter of the painter and professor Johan Gustaf Sandberg and three years later the couple had a daughter, Anna. From 1860 Gustaf taught at the Academy as a professor of elementary drawing, and he held the position until the school was withdrawn at the end of 1878 and transferred to the Technical School.
In 1870 Gustaf completed a beautiful landscape painting of the area close to the hamlet of Bie in central Sweden entitled Vue in the neighbourhood of Bie. The exquisite depiction shows an artist standing in the road sketching the wooden cottage. The old wooden structure has a roof insulated by layers of grass. A man in the foreground struggles with a heavy pail of water which he is going to give to his horse. His unhitched wagon lays by the wayside. Going along the path leading to the house is a woman carrying a heavy bag. Maybe she and the man have been into town for supplies.
Gustaf Wilhelm Palm continued to teach until 1880 and died ten years later on September 20th 1890. He was 80.
As in life itself, snobbery pervades the arts. When asked what our taste in literature is, does one admit to liking romantic fiction or, do we, to save face, rattle on about our love for the novels of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. When it comes to our love in classical music, do we avoid saying we like the Strauss’ waltzes and the 1812 overture and, talk about our passion for Mahler and Schönberg so as to gain kudos, and to bolster our image as a music savant. Our taste in art and artists can be the same. I remember a collector of pre-Raphaelite paintings being somewhat apologetic about his taste in art maybe thinking that his love should be more on the lines of the great Masters or the avant-garde artists such as Pollock, Picasso and Miró. I remember being on a ship and talking to a passenger who was a well-known port wine producer and he was drinking a glass of port with a cube of ice in it and I queried whether that was the accepted way to drink the wine and he just said that he always drinks what he likes and how he likes it, so maybe we should not be backward in coming forward and saying what we like without fear of condemnation by the elitists of this world.
So why this long introduction to today’s featured artist? The artist I am looking at today produces paintings which many would dismiss as “sugary” or “chocolate-boxy” and yet there is a wonderful beauty about his depictions. Let me welcome you to the world of the English painter of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, Arthur John Elsley. During the middle of the nineteenth century, genre paintings featuring happy family life became very popular in England. The newly wealthy middle class chose in particular those genre paintings that depicted scenes of beautifully dressed young children with their pets in playful settings and this is exactly what Arthur John Elsley gave them. The paintings proved so popular that many were reproduced as prints, and others were often used in calendars, adverts, books and magazines.
Elsley was born in London on November 20th 1860. He was one of six children of John Elsley and Emily Freer. His father plied his trade as a coachman but had to give up the job and retire with the onset of tuberculosis. John Elsley was also an amateur artist and had achieved a standard which allowed him to exhibit his work, A Group of Horses, at the British Institution Exhibition of 1845. This Institution had been founded in 1804 for promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. Young Arthur Elsley, like his father, developed a love of art and on family trips to the Regent’s Park Zoo he would make sketches of the animals. In 1875, aged fourteen, Arthur Elsley enrolled at the South Kensington School of Art, which later became the Royal College of Art.
In 1876 Arthur Elsley was accepted into the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer. It was during his time here that he came under the influence of the historical and biblical painter, Edward Armitage, who was the Professor of Painting, Henry Bowler the Professor of Perspective and his professor of anatomy, John Marshall.
Two years later in 1878 Elsley submitted his first painting (A Portrait of an Old Pony) and had it accepted at that year’s Royal Academy Exhibition. The one setback he had to contend with at this time was a problem with his eyesight which was brought on when he contracted measles. He remained at the Academy Schools until 1882 and on leaving he began to receive portrait commissions especially for ones featuring children with dogs and horses. Many of his portrait commissions came from the Benett-Stanford family of politicians who lived at Preston Manor in Brighton. His first known published work was a line engraving entitled April Floods In Eastern Counties printed in the Young England magazine in 1885.
Elsley became friends with Solomon Joseph Solomon, a British painter, a member of the Royal Academy and founding member of the New English Art Club. He was also a friend of George Grenville Manton, and he and Elsley shared a studio in 1876. Manton specialised in portraiture but also painted genre subjects with Pre-Raphaelitesque subjects as well as large-scale religious works.
It was through Manton that Arthur Elsley met Frederick Morgan, who was an English portrait artist and painter of domestic and country scenes. He was well-known for his idyllic genre scenes of childhood. This was also the art genre favoured by Elsley and in 1889 he moved into Morgan’s studio, and the two came to an artistic arrangement in which Elsley would paint the animals in Morgan’s paintings as this was his forte and was proving problematic for Morgan.
In the summer of 1891 the Great Exhibition was held in London. It was to be the first in a series of World’s Fairs, and within it there was exhibitions of culture and industry. The Great Exhibition was organized by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, husband of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria. At this exhibition Elsley was awarded a silver medal in for his painting The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington.
The following year his painting entitled I’se Biggest was published, and it was so popular that it had to be re-engraved to cope with public demand. Elsley depicted a young girl comparing her height with that of a large St. Bernard dog. Terry Parker describes the depiction in his 1998 book, Golden Hours: Paintings of Arthur J Elsley, 1860-1952:
“…one of those simple and unaffected pictures which readily lend themselves to reproduction and has so much nature and so admirable a touch of humour in it that no doubt a great number of those who admire it at Burlington House will be delighted to have an opportunity of hanging a version of it upon their walls…”
The paintings of Elsley were so popular with the public that the Illustrated London News printed one of Elsley’s paintings, Grandfather’s Pet as their Christmas choice for 1893.
Arthur Elsley married his second cousin Emily Fusedale on November 11th 1893. Emily, who was ten years younger than Elsley, had worked for Arthur for over ten years modelling for his paintings. This role, as artist’s model, was passed down to their daughter, Marjorie, who was born in 1903 and who as a young child, would appear in many of Elsley’s paintings. After the marriage Elsley set himself up in a new studio and continued with his paintings depicting young children and animals in idyllic countryside settings.
With the death of the leading Victorian painter of this genre, Charles Burton Barber, in 1894, Elsley took up the mantle as the most revered painter of children and pets. The Illustrated London News, 25 January 1896, wrote:
“…Mr. Elsley appears more distinctly as a follower, though not an imitator, of Mr. Burton Barber, differing from him by allowing his children more than a pet at a time, and going beyond the limitations of a fox-terrier, or a collie. He has a keen sense of humour, especially in his treatment of puppies’ backs, which, as students of dog-life well know, are their most expressive features…”
The close relationship between Elsley and Morgan soured around the turn of the century when the latter accused Elsley of artistic plagiarism as he believed Elsley was using his ideas in his paintings.
The First World War broke out in 1914 and for its four-year duration Elsley contributed to the war effort by working on bomb-sights in a munition factory, which put a terrible strain on his already failing eyesight. Elsley’s output of paintings dwindled and he only managed to complete four during the first three years of the war, one of which was a portrait of his daughter, which, although he would not sell it, allowed it to be exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Marjorie Elsley featured in many of her father’s paintings and I particularly like the one entitled Never Mind which he completed in 1907. The St Bernard dog we see in the painting featured in many of Elsley’s works.
In his 1998 book, Golden Hours: Paintings of Arthur J Elsley, 1860-1952, Terry Parker, who interviewed Elsley’s only child and principal model, wrote:
“…Marjorie remembers that the St Bernard featured in Never Mind was owned by Miss Mumford, a nurse who lived at South Woodford ………..Elsley was the most popular ‘chocolate box’ artist of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. The appealing quality of his paintings were easily understood and presented a cosy, idealised world of happy, smiling children and their animals…”
In the years that followed, Elsley continued to paint mostly for pleasure and exhibited some of his works until 1927. His failing eyesight eventually curtailed his art work and by 1931 the only hobby he could still manage were his love of woodwork, metalwork and gardening.
Arthur John Elsley died at his home in Tunbridge Wells on 19 February 1952, at the age of 91. At the height of his career from 1878 to 1927, Elsley exhibited 52 works at the Royal Academy.
To capture beauty with a camera is complicated but with all the aids such as lighting, make-up and Photoshop, photographs of beautiful women are often seen in magazines and newspapers. However, to capture the same life-like beauty in a painting is solely down to the expertise of the artist. As a man, there is something utterly mesmeric when you stand in front of a painting and see before you unadulterated beauty.
I was reminded of this in a comment I received concerning the painting entitled Young Woman Drawing by the eighteenth century French artist Marie-Denise Villers, which I featured in my blog (January 21st 2011). The reader, who confessed to not being a lover of art, commented:
“…while walking through the MET this painting stopped me in my tracks. I love the thoughts that this painting invokes – Who is this woman that is examining me and what does she see? The history of this painting makes it that much intriguing to me and really sets the tone that this painting has nothing to do with the artist weather David or Villers; but more the subject – you. I would pay admission to The MET again just to enjoy this painting one more time. This painting is by far my favorite of the whole museum…”
My blog today is about a man who effortlessly brought beauty to his canvases although such a dedication had a problematic affect on his life. I want you to peruse his many paintings of beautiful women that led to his fame as a great portrait painter. Today I want to introduce you to Gerald Leslie Brockhurst.
Brockhurst was born in the Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston, on October 31st, 1890. He was the youngest of four sons. His father, Arthur, a coal merchant, deserted the family and sought his fortune in America. Gerald attended a number of local schools but found it hard to settle down to school life. He struggled with his writing but excelled in sketching. Problems at school were exacerbated by recurring ear infections he frequently suffered from and which often left him bedridden. As a young boy, he showed a talent for drawing and having an aunt who lived in India, it gave him the opportunity to send her illustrated letters and this really fired-up his interest in art and soon his goal for the future was to become a painter. In 1901, just before his twelfth birthday, he was accepted into the Birmingham School of Art where he remained for five years. He prospered at the academy and the then headmaster of the Birmingham School of Art even announced he had discovered “a young Botticelli”.
During this five-year period, he developed a love for portraiture. Testament to this fact was his self-portrait which he completed in 1905 when he was just fifteen years of age. The portrait is now housed in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
Gerald Brockhurst won many awards at the Birmingham School of Art and later in 1907 he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools, which was the oldest art school in the country, founded through a personal act of King George III in 1768. In 1912 Brockhurst gained the esteemed Gold Medal for General Excellence and a travelling scholarship.
In 1913 Brockhurst met a young French woman, Anais Melisande Folin. She was an amateur artist and it is thought the two met at the home of Ambrose and Mary McEvoy, with whom she was very close. Anais, besides being an artist, sat for many of his early portraits. During his lifetime, Brockhurst made many portraits of celebrities and royalty, but his main sitters were his family and his wife. The couple married in 1913 and a year later Brockhurst took up his travelling scholarship award and set off with Anais to France and Italy to study the paintings of the old Masters, in particular the work of Leonardo Da Vinci and Piero della Francesco whose stylistic and compositional ideas had a lasting effect on his career.
In 1915, Gerald and Anais moved to Ireland where they remained until 1919. Brockhurst painted a number of pictures on the west coast of Ireland. Whilst in Ireland the couple became friends with some established painters such as Augustus John and it is his influence which can be seen in Brockhurst’s 1916 work entitled Ireland, 1916 which is housed in the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow. In this work his wife Anais is depicted in local costume against the Connemara mountains.
It was during those years in Ireland that Brockhurst created many etched and painted portraits of his wife. From those works, we can see that he was truly in love with her and was fascinated by her beauty. His meeting with the Welsh artist, Augustus John proved very fortuitous as he introduced Brockhurst to his circle of friends. In fact, it was Augustus John who persuaded him to stage two major exhibitions of his works at Chelsea’s Chenil Gallery, in 1916 and again in 1919. These were the launchpad to Brockhurst’s artistic career and he and his wife left Ireland and went to live in London in 1920. Once in London he began to enter some of his etchings and drawings to the Royal Academy. In London, Brockhurst became one of the most successful and highly sought-after portrait painters, but he was also a highly skilled draughtsman and etcher.
During the twenties and thirties, there was a voracious market for contemporary etching and Brockhurst quickly mastered the technique publishing his first prints in 1920. In 1921, Brockhurst was elected to membership in the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. One of his first etchings was of his friend and fellow Artist Henry Rushbury. Both had studied at the Birmingham School of Art and when Rushbury left Birmingham to live in London, he first shared a flat with Brockhurst who had already been living in the capital for five years. The etching on the left is entitled Yolande (Mrs Rushbury) and is a portrait of his friend’s wife. Although entitled Yolande, which was a “fancy” name made up by Brockhurst, her name was actually Florence! This etching with its minimal use of lines was described by critics as “a piece of the purest etching in the strictest sense of the word”.
During the next decade Brockhurst established himself as an outstanding and flourishing portrait painter, and also strengthened his reputation as one of the exceptional printmakers of his generation.
By 1930 Brockhurst’s artwork was becoming increasingly popular and his reputation as a portrait artist was in the ascendancy, especially for his portraits of glamorous and beautiful women. Most of his portraiture was depictions in half-length format solely depicting the head, shoulders, and torso of the sitter. One of his most famous portraits, which can be found in Tate Britain, was that of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. This smaller than life-size portrait(76 x 64cms) by Brockhurst depicts the socialite Margaret Whigham the only child of Helen Mann Hannay and George Hay Whigham, a Scottish millionaire. She would later become the Duchess of Argyll after her second marriage to Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll in 1951. When she sat for the painting around 1931, Margaret was nineteen years of age. She was leading a charmed life having been presented at Court in London in 1930 and was known as the debutante of the year. The background of the portrait is comprised of a dark sky and a landscape of mountains and lakes. Margaret was known to be passionately proud of her Scottish heritage, and Brockhurst has reflected this in the way he has painted the scenic backdrop, which evokes the lochs and mountains of Scotland. Margaret faces us, with her face, shoulders, and torso in view. She is wearing a dark dress, and Brockhurst has depicted the golden, floral embroidery in great detail using small brushstrokes. Look at the contrast between her pale, porcelain-like skin with its muted tones with the rest of her face such as her very dark eyes and eyebrows, which are so different in comparison with the whiteness of her face.
Teaching in the Royal Academy Schools, at that time, was undertaken by a system of lectures delivered by Professors and Royal Academician Visitors, and in 1928, when Brockhurst was thirty-eight years old, he was appointed a Visitor to the Royal Academy Schools. It was at this time that he met the sixteen-year-old artist’s life model Kathleen Woodward. Brockhurst was immediately besotted by this youthful and exuberant beauty and she was to become his lifelong model and even though she, his muse, was just sixteen years of age and he was thirty-eight, the two soon became lovers. He renamed her Dorette. which is of Greek origin and means “gift”. This renaming of one’s muse was similar to what his fellow artist and friend, Augustus John had done, when he named his lover and muse, Dorothy McNeil, Dorelia.
His new muse Dorette appeared in many paintings and etchings by Brockhurst but the one people remember the most was his audacious, some would say salacious, while others postulated that it was his greatest print masterpiece – Adolescence, which he completed in 1932. In the depiction we see his mistress, Kathleen Woodward, then nineteen years of age, sitting on a stool in front of her dressing table mirror. From the mirrored reflection we can see that Kathleen is studying her naked body. She seems unhappy with what she sees. It is the personification of teenage angst. It is a study of vulnerability. It is a kind of body dysmorphia in which, although the viewer sees a perfect body, the young woman is disappointed in what the mirror has revealed. The darkly lit depiction adds to the intense scene. It is a depiction which tip-toes along the narrow line separating art and erotica. What we see before us is undoubtedly the artist’s talent in his portrayal of a variety of surfaces, textures, and tones. To some, it is simply a study of beauty to others it is a disturbing, even distasteful depiction but it simply comes down to individual taste.
This brings me back to my opening lines when I talked about being mesmerised by beauty depicted in a painting. I first caught sight of the 1934 painting by Gerald Brockhurst entitled Jeunesse Dorée when I visited the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight, Merseyside, back in May 2011. In a way the painting was hidden away, hanging on the wall of the narrow mezzanine corridor above the main gallery. The title of the work comes from the French meaning “gilded youth” and the term is often applied to wealthy and fashionable society people. It was painted by Gerald Brockhurst in 1934 and exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It was subsequently purchased for £1000 by Lord Leverhume, for his Lady Lever Gallery on the very first day of the show.
Take a moment and study this beautiful portrait. It is a half-length portrait with an almost two-dimensional stark and rocky idealised landscape along with an immense sky as the background. There is a lack of depth to the background of this painting, which in a way projects the young girl towards us. This setting was consistent with his many portraits of the 1930’s and 1940’s but which was in contrast to the works of other portraitist who preferred to use realistic three-dimensional settings. He has used sombre colours. The young woman stares straight at us almost as if she is daring us to blink. As you look at her you wonder what is going through her mind. Her eyes are penetrating as if she is looking into your very soul. There is no hint of a smile on her full red lips. Her expression is inscrutable. This however does not detract from her beauty and her captivating sensuality. Her plain-coloured cardigan, echoing the shades of the background, clings tightly to her body. Her full breasts strain against the material and the buttons of the cardigan which hold them captive. It is no wonder that Brockhurst was seduced by her beauty and fell in love with her. Many who have stood before this portrait have also fallen in love with her, having been lost in her enigmatic loveliness. The art critic of the Daily Mail newspaper of the day reported on the painting and its admirers writing:
“…again, I saw people yesterday standing before the picture trying to fathom the secret of those curiously haunting deep-blue eyes…”
Lord Leverhulme lent the picture to the 1934 Liverpool Autumn Exhibition held at Liverpool Walker Art Gallery and this annual exhibition was looked upon as the equivalent of the Royal Academy shows. The curator at the Walker at the time, Charles Carter, wrote in the Liverpool Evening Express that ‘Jeunesse Dorée’ was “a picture of sensuality incarnate”.
Lord Leverhume’s determination to have the painting stemmed from his frustration the year before when he tried to buy Brockhurst’s 1932 etching Dorette, but due to the hesitancy of his Gallery Trustees on whether to fund the proposed acquisition, the sale was lost and it was bought by the Harris Museum and Art Gallery of Preston.
During the thirties the market for prints had collapsed and Brockhurst reverted to painting. In his painting, Portrait of Nancy Woodward, we see a depiction of Dorette’s sister Nancy which Brockhurst completed in the 1930’s. This work is thought to be one of only two portraits that Brockhurst painted of Nancy. What looks like a domestic backdrop to the painting gives the impression of a close relationship he had with the sitter. Nancy strikes a self-confident pose at a time when her sister’s lover was suffering from public censure for his affair with his muse, Kathleen. The 1930’s proved to be a very turbulent time for Brockhurst. On the plus side Brockhurst was earning the highest income of any British portrait painter of the period and in 1937 he was elected to the Royal Academy. However on the down-side, following the publishing of his Adolescence etching a newspaper article appeared exposing his affair with his model Kathleen Woodward. The story created a scandal in England, and his wife Anais was furious and filed for divorce. Gerald Brockhurst was equally vehement with regards his wife’s action and counter-sued.
The adverse publicity in the British press from the divorce procedures which was finally granted to Anais in 1939, combined with the beginning of World War II led to Brockhurst fleeing England with his lover and emigrating to New Jersey where the two married. Brockhurst and Kathleen eventually settled in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. In New York, Brockhurst’s fame as a portrait artist blossomed and commissions from his loyal patrons flowed in making him both famous and very wealthy.
He was a prolific portraitist who completed in excess of six hundred works, many of rich and famous people such as J Paul Getty, Wallis Simpson, Merle Oberon, and Marlene Dietrich.
Gerald Leslie Brockhurst died in New Jersey on May 4th, 1978 aged 87. His second wife, Kathleen ‘Dorette’ Woodward, died in 1996.
When an artist paints a landscape, seascape or cityscape he has to decide whether what he produces is a topographically accurate depiction of what he is looking at or an idealized version. He may consider adding or removing something or placing some feature in a different place to enhance the finished product. He may decide that such action would create a more agreeable balance. He is the artist and it is his choice. The one caveat of course is that if it is a commissioned piece he may have to discuss what he proposes to change with the person who is paying for the painting.
Portraiture is defined as the art of representing the physical or psychological likeness of a real or imaginary individual. Portraiture is also subject to the vagaries of idealism and verism. Idealistic portraiture often comes in the form of the backdrop and the accessories which surround the sitter and which, in some way, enrich the status of the sitter. Expensive furnishings, expensive tableware, expensive and fashionable clothes and jewellery worn by the sitter gives the viewer the feeling that the subject is prosperous and wealthy. Globes and books on a table near to the sitter can give the impression that they are learned and well-travelled. The figure of the sitter can be adjusted to make them look younger, more handsome or more beautiful.
One of the most famous idealised portraits was Botticelli’s depiction of Simonetta Vespucci, nicknamed la bella Simonetta. She was an Italian noblewoman from Genoa, the wife of Marco Vespucci of Florence and the cousin-in-law of Amerigo Vespucci. She was famous as the greatest beauty of her age in Northern Italy, and the model for many paintings by Botticelli and other Florentine painters. Speculation has it that the portrait of Simonetta is actually just an idealized version which emerged as the perfect beauty through Botticelli’s mind eye. The Italian Master achieved the flawless complexion of Simonetta by using a special mixture, terre verte – a green, earthy tone – to under paint, and afterward layered the flesh- like tones over it to create diverse shades of pink, yellow, and orange. Botticelli made use of fine lines and shapes to unobtrusively build up contrasts and fashion the depth and texture of the portrait. Apart from Botticelli, she also served other painters as an inspiration. She died young and childless at twenty-three. She presumably did not appear in public quite this perfectly styled. Her coiffure with beads, ribbons, feathers and artificial hairpieces would have been too elaborate and high-flown even by Florentine standards. Her outfit is much more likely to have been a nymph costume in the antique or classical-mythological style. This portrait is looked upon as the ideal of contemporary female beauty. Look at the way the artist has depicted her eyelashes and how she turns her body slightly towards us. It is the perfection of idealised beauty
The opposite to idealism is verism. Verism is a term which dates back to the Roman Empire and is from the Roman Latin word verus meaning true and from Italian term verismo, meaning realism in its sense of gritty subject matter. In modern times the Italian term verismo, gives the sense of stark uncompromising subject matter. In portraiture verism is a form of realism in which a veristic portrait depicts a sitter with warts, wrinkles and all instead of a highly idealised depiction of smooth flawless skin. Veristic portraits do not attempt to idealize or beautify the subject; instead they represent all features of the individual, including wrinkles, imperfect proportions, balding, and blemishes of the skin
In this blog I am looking at the life of a great seventeenth century German portrait artist, who completed a number of veristic portraits. Today’s blog is all about Balthasar Denner, who will be remembered for his half-length and head-and-shoulders portraits of elderly men and women. Denner tended to focus attention on the face and if clothing was to be included in the depiction, he would leave that to other artists, including, in later years, his daughter, Catharina.
A good example of this collaboration can be seen in a painting he completed in 1724 entitled Three Children of Alderman Barthold Hinrich Brockes, on the back of which is an inscription stating that he painted the heads of the children, Jacob van Schuppen later in Vienna painted the bodies and costumes, and the background is from Franz de Paula Ferg. The flowers in the hands of the children were painted by Franz Werner Tamm.
Balthasar Denner was born on November 15th 1685 in Altona, now a suburb of Hamburg but, at the time Altona was part of the Danish kingdom and second only to Copenhagen in size. He was one of eight children but was the only son. His mother was Catharina Wiebe. His father was Jacob Denner, a Mennonite minister who was involved with the business of dyeing cloth. At the age of eight Balthasar was involved in an accident which resulted in him walking with a limp for the rest of his life. Following the accident, he was laid up in bed for a long period and to the pass the time he began to draw and started to copy the works of the Dutch painters, Abraham Bloemaert and Nicolaes Berchem whose works were very popular at that time.
Denner received his first artistic training from Frans van Amama, a Dutch painter. In 1696, at the age of eleven, Balthasar and his family left Altona and went to live in Danzig, where his father worked for a while as a Mennonite pastor. When he was thirteen years old Balthazar took up oil painting. The family returned to Altona in 1701 and Balthasar was put to work as a clerk for his uncle who was a prosperous merchant. Denner remained in the Hamburg suburb until 1707 at which time, aged twenty-two, he went to live in Berlin and that year became a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. This state arts academy was established in 1696 in Berlin by prince-elector Frederick III and was the third oldest art academy in Europe. At the start of his artistic career Denner concentrated on painting miniatures which became very sought-after items.
In 1709, Balthasar Denner obtained his first significant commission – to paint the portraits of Christian August, the uncle and guardian of Karl Friedrich, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf, and his sister Marie Elisabeth, the later Abbess of Quedlinburg. On completion of the portrait, Denner’s client was so captivated by the finished result that he invited him to Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig to paint other portraits, and in 1712 Denner completed a memorable group portrait which included twenty-one individuals from the Duke’s court. The group portrait is now housed in Schloss Rastede, near Oldenburg in Germany and it was this painting which greatly enhanced the reputation of Balthasar Denner as an exceptionally talented portrait painter.
During his stay in Berlin, he would frequently return to his home town of Altona. In 1712, in Hamburg, he married Esther de Winter and the couple went on to have six children, five daughters and a son. After the destruction of Altona in 1713, burnt to the ground by Swedish troops, during the Great Nordic War which had begun in 1700 between the forces of Sweden and the might of Russia and its allies, Norway and Denmark, Balthasar moved from Altona to Hamburg.
Denner travelled a great deal in the next ten years following up commissions from wealthy clients. In 1714 he made a trip to Amsterdam and later, in 1720 he visited the court in Wolfenbüttel and Hanover. Whilst in Hanover he became acquainted with many Englishmen who were living in the German city and it was through these friendships that he and his family were invited to come to London. His painting of an Old Woman circa 1720 received great acclaim. On his way to England he met the Dutch painter, Adriaen van der Werff, who the great art historian, Arnold Houbraken, considered was the greatest of the Dutch painters and such acclaim was the prevailing critical opinion throughout the 18th century. Van der Werff, on seeing Denner’s portrait, compared it to the Mona Lisa.
The work also caused great excitement in London and it was sent to Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor. Denner received 5875 guilders and in 1725 and was commissioned to paint an old man as a pendant piece for the same amount of money. Denner stayed in the English capital for seven years but eventually returned to Hamburg complaining that he could no longer endure the smog which beset London
In 1729 he was invited to visit the court in Blankenburg am Harz en Dresden and later travelled to Berlin. The wealthy and the European nobility all wanted to be painted by him and have their portrait hanging in their stately homes. Around 1740 he painted ten copies of the twelve-year-old Peter III (Russia) which were sent to all the European courts and one was sent to the court of Petersburg. In 1742 he the court of St Petersburg offered Denner a position as court painter with an immense salary but he declined the offer
In 1743 he painted Adolf Frederick, King of Sweden. Two years later, around 1745 he returned with his family to lived in his birthplace, Altona and it was here that three of his children died. It was a time of great sadness, and such was his grief that Denner, for a whole year, would never put brush to canvas.
Balthasar Denner died on April 14th 1749 aged 63, in Rostock. At the time of his death there were forty-six unfinished paintings in his Altona studio. Klara Garas the Hungarian art historian, and one-time Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest described Denner’s portraiture:
“… ‘Denner’s genre figures and character heads depicting wrinkled old women and men were particularly popular and were admired for their detailed execution and meticulous accuracy. They ensured the artist international success and attracted especially high fees: Emperor Charles VI of Austria is believed to have sent 600 ducats from Vienna in payment for a typical head of a woman, an extraordinary sum at that time…”
The term genre painting relates to works depicting scenes of everyday life. Such depictions embrace scenes of ordinary people at work or enjoying their leisure time. This type of painting flourished in Protestant Northern Europe as an independent art form. The first great advocates of genre painting were the Dutch Realist artists of the 17th century, such as Adriaen Brouwer with his riotous pub scenes, Adriaen Van Ostade, who painted genre scenes depicting peasants enjoying their home life or relaxing in an inn.
My favourite has to be Jan Steen, who ran an inn and depicted people in their homes.
In France there were genre paintings by the likes of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin who depicted servants and children. The harsher realities of working life featured in genre paintings of Jean-François Millet, Daumier, Courbet, van Gogh, and Degas whilst joyous life experienced in bars and cafés featured in works by Toulouse-Lautrec.
My featured artist today is the English genre painter and portrait painter Charles Spencelayh. Genre paintings, as well as being a pleasure to observe, are an insight into everyday life before the era of cameras and television. The genre and Academic portrait paintings of Spencelayh looked at life during Victorian and Edwardian times and gives us a great insight into life and fashion in those times.
Charles Spencelayh was born in Rochester in Kent on October 27th 1865. He was the youngest of eleven children and was the son of Henry Spencelayh, an engineer and iron and brass founder who sadly died before his son was born. Charles’ first steps into the world of art came when he was given his first set of paints at the age of eight and he soon progressed to copying Old Masters. He studied art at the National Art Training School, South Kensington, which later became known as the Royal College of Art, where he won a prize for his figure drawing.
Charles Spencelayh married Elizabeth Hodson Stowe, who worked as a governess, at St. Paul’s, Penge in 1890 and the couple started married life in Chatham. According to the 1891 census Elizabeth’s occupation was given as a tobacconist. She appears in many of her husband’s paintings including My Pet which depicts Elizabeth, in profile, holding a dove.
In 1891 the couple had their one and only child, a son, Vernon who went on to become a talented artist and ivory miniaturist, having been taught by his father. Vernon served as an officer in WW1 and was held as a prisoner of war in Germany. He, like his mother, appeared in a number of portraits by his father.
Another fine portrait by Charles of his son, Vernon, in uniform is owned by The National Army Museum. This portrait by his father is a fond record of his son preparing to depart for war. This Academic-style portrait of his son has an intensity and could almost be mistaken as a photograph. Vernon Spencelayh’s regiment was the West Yorkshire Regiment, denoted by the motif of the white horse of Hanover on the cap badge. He was involved in a number of battles on the Western Front and at Gallipoli.
In 1896, Spencelayh became a founder member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers, a Society which was formed with the stated intention:
“…to esteem, protect and practice the traditional 16th Century art of miniature painting emphasising the infinite patience needed for its fine techniques…”
During his lifetime Spencelayh exhibited 129 miniatures at their exhibitions. Probably one of his most famous miniatures was a postage stamp sized portrait of King George V for his wife, Queen Mary’s celebrated Doll’s House, designed by Edwin Lutyens, which was exhibited at the Wembley Exhibition of 1924 and now housed in Windsor Castle. Queen Mary’s and Princess Marie-Louise’s thank you letter was one of Spencelayh’s most treasured possessions. Spencelayh was a favourite of Queen Mary, who was an avid collector of his work and she bought many of his paintings when they were exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions and she even commissioned one painting, which Spencelayh titled ‘The Unexpected’ due to his surprise at receiving such a request.
The high-points of Spencelayh’s artistic career were the years between the two World Wars. He had acquired a wealthy patron, Joseph Nissim Levy, a prosperous Manchester cotton merchant and during the 1920’s completed a number of portraits of Levy’s social circle. Mr. Levy’s admiration of the talented artist went so far as to give Spencelayh and his family use of a residence in Manchester. In 1924 Spencelayh painted an intimate portrait of Joseph’s wife titled Rosie Levy taking afternoon tea at the Midland Hotel Manchester. It is a masterpiece in the way Spencelayh has captured the folds of the rich fabric backdrop and the furnishings with their reflective surfaces.
In the early 1930’s the Spencelayh’s moved south to Grove Park and Lee a suburb of south London, but sadly, his wife, Elizabeth died there in 1937 and was buried four miles away in Chislehurst Cemetery.
Spencerlayh had his work exhibited at the Paris Salon, but most of his exhibitions were in Britain. For sixty years until his death in 1958 he exhibited more than 30 paintings at the Royal Academy, with his work entitled Why War winning the 1939 Royal Academy ‘Picture of the Year’. Spencelayh had fought in the First World War and in this painting, he depicts another veteran of that war in his darkened sitting room. He blankly stares into space. He is forlornly envisaging the onset of the Second World War. The artist has added so much detail in this painting that we can build up a picture of how the man lives. We see, on the table next to him, a new gas mask issued to him by Lewisham Council and lying on a chair is a newspaper, emblazoned across the front page is the story covering Chamberlain’s abortive mission to make peace with Hitler. Spencelayh’s talent as both a genre painter and portraitist and his training as a miniaturist allowed him to build up a pictorial story by his depiction of visual clues in painstaking detail.
His 1942 painting It’s War brings home the hardship felt by many during the Second World War. Painted in his studio with a large amount of props which he accumulated during his visits to bric-a-brac shops it depicts the hard times suffered by many during the conflict. It is part portraiture, part genre and part still-life. Its is testament to the genius of the man.
Although the War had ended and the Allies had been victors, Many in England had to suffer years of deprivation. Food was rationed and hardships endured as is beautifully depicted in Spencelayh’s 1946 painting, His Daily Ration in which we see an elderly man staring at his meagre meal.
One theme which appeared in many of Spencelayh’s paintings was of old men pottering around in junk shops or in cluttered rooms in their homes. These were classic Victorian genre works which were pictorial histories of the between-War days in England.
Many of his subjects were of domestic scenes, painted with such definition that they are almost photographic. In his 1935 painting The Laughing Parson, we see the parson dressed in a grey morning suit, resplendent with his “dog collar”. He is half slumped in his wing back armchair as he peruses the latest issue of the satirical Punch magazine. By the look on his face and his broad smile, something in the magazine has amused him. Once again Spencelayh has added numerous items of furniture and accessories which tell us about life in those bygone days.
In 1940, Charles remarried, and his second wife, another Elizabeth and he continued to live in Lee but after a particularly fierce German bombing raid over London, they were rendered homeless. Worse still many of his paintings were destroyed. The couple then moved north to Olney were his wife’s family lived and soon after, setting up home in the Northamptonshire village of Bozeat where they remained for the rest of their lives. It was during those years at Bozeat that Spencerlayh produced some of his best loved paintings often featuring residents of the village who were often treated to a home-cooked meal as payment for modelling for one of his paintings.
Spencelayh set up his studio with room-sized screens bedecked with patterned wallpaper and had a chest, full of props, with which he would “dress” the room. Charles ‘dressed’ the room using “props” from his collection, such as Toby jugs, stuffed birds, Windsor chairs, clocks and cheap watches as well as patriotic framed pictures of Lord Nelson and members of the Royal Family. Look at the background of his 1947 work A Lover of Dickens. The props he used to add meaning to the painting were arranged haphazardly to give a sense of everyday clutter. Maybe the man lived on his own and a regime of “tidiness” was not forced upon him !
By the late 1950’s his eyesight began to fail but that did not deter him and he continued to paint and in 1958, three of his works were accepted into the Royal Academy Summer, including a poignant work titled The Faded Rose. Sixty-six years earlier he had his first work exhibited, a miniature entitled Mrs Robins and he is considered to be one of the most prolific artists to show at the Royal Academy. Notwithstanding this, he was never made an Associate of the Academy, which baffled many including himself. He wrote to his Canadian agent, George Nuttall in 1956 about this unforgiveable omission. He commented jokingly:
“…I do not know, unless I am not old enough, or work not sufficiently good, which is my aim to yet improve although I cannot wear glasses to paint eventually this will stop my efforts I’m sure of it…”
Charles Spencelayh died, aged 92, in St Andrews Hospital, Northampton on June 25th, 1958 and after a funeral service conducted by his friend and executor the Reverend W.C. Knight in the 12th century church of St Mary the Virgin, Bozeat, he made his final journey back to Kent and was buried with his first wife in Chislehurst Cemetery.
Most of the pictures came from ARC and Art UK and Spencelayh’s biography came from a number of websites of galleries which house some of his paintings and the Chislehurst Society website:
Finnish nationalism as far as language was concerned became prominent in the nineteenth century and was a consequence of the dominance of the Swedish language in Finland’s cultural and political life. With the Russian conquest of Finland in 1809, the Russian government generally supported Finnish linguistic nationalism, as they believed it would alienate the Finns from Sweden and thereby ensure that close ties with or even the integration with Sweden would be halted. This Finnish-language nationalism known as the Fennoman movement soon developed into the most powerful political force in nineteenth century Finland and was summed up by a popular phrase of the time:
“…We are no longer Swedes; we cannot become Russians; we must be Finns…”
Axel Gallén was a fervent nationalist and a follower of the Fennoman movement. It was this passion which was to alter the course of both his personal and artistic life. His interest in Finnish nationalism brought him in contact with Kaarlo Slöör who was a poet, translator, and editor in chief of the Finnish Official Journal and a staunch Finnish nationalist. Through this friendship he first met Slöör’s daughter Mary Helena, a talented concert pianist, and one of Kaarlo’s seven children. Axel Gallén had also attended school with two of her brothers, Karl Rafael, and Fredrik.
Mary had a happy childhood living within a financially secure environment. Tragedy struck the family when Mary was ten years old with the death of her brother Otto in 1878 after suffering from diphtheria and the following year another of her brothers, Karl Artur, died of pneumonia.
Axel and Mary fell in love as can be seen in letters between the couple. In a letter dated May 29th, 1887, a bashful Axel wrote to Mary:
“…Most loved Mary, what you need is when You, as you say, you want to, but you will not be able to be kind to me, to keep me a little bit. In the last some you call yourself ‘ as a friend ‘. Do not know, therefore, that, you my feelings towards you is not friendship, but love. I love you with all my soul and I cannot say it to you… “
In 1887, Axel painted a portrait of his future wife, Mary, entitled Mary Slöörin muotokuva.
Gallén lived in Paris from the autumn of 1887 to the summer of 1889 during which time he continued at the Académie Julian as well as working at the Atelier Cormon from 1887 to 1888. His Paris paintings, such as Parisian Café and After the Opera Ball, recall the heady days of Paris Society.
Axel and Mary secretly got engaged in spring 0f 1887 during his visit to Finland and before returning to his artistic studies in Paris. Once Axel’s paintings began to sell and his financial situation had improved, the couple married at the home of Mary’s parents on May 20th 1890. They went on honeymoon to Kuhmo in the south-east of Finland. Axel completed a number of paintings during the honeymoon including Marie Gallén at the Kuhmoniemi-bridge.
There the couple were joined by Swedish artist, Count Louis Sparre, whom Axel had met whilst in Paris. The two men also made a couple of week-long trips to northern Russian Karelia. Axel Gallén was organising himself to paint a new version, commissioned by the government, of his Aino triptych, and whilst in Karelia he hoped to find models and themes for his work. He also planned to enter a new competition, set by the Savo-Karelia Students’ Association to provide illustrations for the Kalevala, an epic poem, consisting of 22,795 verses, divided into fifty songs, compiled by Elias Lonnrot, derived from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology. It is regarded as the national epic of Karelia and Finland and is one of the most significant works of Finnish literature.
It was during his time studying at the Atelier Cormon in 1888 that Axel started on his famous triptych The Legend of Aïno. For him it was an exciting time. It was the time of the Young Finland, Karelianism and the beginnings of the Kalevala Karelia romanticism.
The tragic tale of Aino was largely created by Elias Lönnrot, collector and writer of the stories behind the Kalevala saga. Myths are a reflection of the society from which they spring, in this case where parents and family decide the marital fate of a girl. The Aino triptych is still very capable of arousing discussions and emotions.
Aino,meaning “the only one”, is a figure in the Finnish national epic Kalevala. It tells of her being the beautiful sister of Joukahainen. Her brother, having lost a singing contest to the storied Väinämöinen, promised Aino’s “hands and feet” in marriage if Väinämöinen would save him from drowning in the swamp into which Joukahainen had been thrown. Aino’s mother was pleased at the idea of marrying her daughter to such a famous and well born person, but Aino did not want to marry such an old man. Rather than submit to this fate, Aino drowned herself (or ended up as a nix – a water being). However, she returned to taunt the grieving Väinämöinen as a salmon.
Gallén painted the story of Aino in three scenes. However, they are not presented chronologically. In the left-hand panel Aino wrenches the string of pearls from around her neck and rejects Väinämöinen’s proposal. In the central panel, Väinämöinen brings up a strange catch when he goes fishing, which he initially recognises as Aino. She mocks Väinämöinen and leaps into the water. In the right-hand panel Aino meets the frolicking water nymphs, the maids of the water goddess Vellamo. In the next stage of the saga, Aino swims to a rock from where she sinks with it into oblivion beneath the waves, but this is not depicted.
Gallén based his work on the Kalevala, and its text didn’t hold back on criticising men, including Väinämöinen. The story of Aino is one of the great tragedies. The girl’s mother bitterly regrets her attempts at marrying off her daughter, against the girl’s wishes. Väinämöinen, on the other hand, “cries evening long, cries morning long, at night he cries still more…”
Aino gets her revenge. She mocks Väinämöinen, who imagined her “wiping his little kitchen, cleaning his floors” and jeers that the “feeble-minded” old man, doesn’t even recognise “Vellamo’s watery maid, the only child of Aho”. This is what Gallén chose as the central discussion point behind his triptych.
After their honeymoon the Axel and Mary moved into rented accommodation in Malmi, a suburb of Helsinki. In the summer of 1891 the couple had their first child, a daughter, Impi Marjatta. Three years later Axel and his family moved to a home he had built in Ruovesi Kalela.
In early 1895 Gallén travelled to Berlin where he took part in a joint exhibition with the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Axel completed a portrait of Munch that year.
Axel also worked on a number of drawings for the new Berlin arts and literary magazine, Pan. His stay in Berlin was brought to an abrupt when he received a telegram informing him of the death of his four-year-old daughter Impi Marjatta at their partly-completed home, Kalela, in Ruovesi. She had died of diphtheria.
During 1895 ‘Kalela’ was finally completed. It was built of logs hewn lengthwise on opposite sides, and it became one of the most famous products of national-romantic architecture. Axel and Mary’s second child, a daughter, Kirsti, was born in 1895 and three years later their third child, a son, Kaius Jorma was born. Mary helped Axel in his studio often making and decorating the paintings, and more mundane jobs such as cleaning and washing brushes and palettes. She would also practice wood cutting and gypsum moulding and helped him in the burning of glass stained glass. She often acted as his model.
Axel was now starting to paint using tempera rather than oils and in 1896 he completed a portrait of his mother.
The following year more paintings in tempera illustrating the Kalevala followed including Joukahaisen kosto (‘Joukahainen’s Revenge’)
and Velisurma (‘Fratricide’)
In 1900 Axel Gallén was commissioned to paint frescoes for the Finnish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair. One of the frescoes was Ilmarinen Ploughing the Field of Vipers. Ilmarinen, the Eternal Hammerer, blacksmith and inventor was a character in the epic poem, Kalevala, and is a god and archetypal artificer from Finnish mythology. Axel, a staunch follower of Finnish nationalism, took the opportunity to make the depiction very political as he painted one of the vipers in the fresco as wearing the Romanov crown, and the process of removing the vipers from the field was a clear reference to his wish for an independent Finland.
In 1905 Axel Gallén produced one of his most famous works, Lake Keitele. It is one of the artist’s most eloquent and haunting renditions of the subject and it is still the only painting by him in a public collection in Great Britain. It is housed in the National Gallery in London. Strangely the artist painted four versions of the picture between 1904 and 1906. The year, 1904, had not started well for Axel. He and his wife had been travelling around Europe and during their stay in Granada in southern Spain Axel contracted malaria. He and his wife returned to Finland so that he could recuperate. The couple rented a lodge in Konginkangas on the shores of Lake Keitele which was more practical than returning to his remote studio in Ruovesi. The painting depicts the lake’s scenic shores and crystalline waters which are bathed in brilliant northern light.
Through finnicization, the changing of one’s personal names from other languages (usually Swedish) into Finnish, Axel Waldemar Gallén officially changed his Swedish family name to Akseli Gallén-Kallela in 1907 and from then on always signed his paintings with his Finnish name. However, his wife Mary kept her name as Mary Gallén.
In 1909, Gallen-Kallela moved with his family to the British East African city of Nairobi, and there he painted more than 150 expressionist oil-paintings and collected many East African artefacts. However, the family became homesick and Akseli realised once again that his main artistic inspiration was Finland. The family moved back to Finland in 1911 and between 1911 and 1913 he designed and built a studio and house at Tarvaspää, which lay about 10 km north of the centre of Helsinki.
The collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 caused a power vacuum in Finland, and civil war erupted between the left-wing labour movement and the conservatives. In 1918, Akseli Gallen-Kallela and his twenty-year-old son Jorma took part in the fighting at the front, in the Finnish Civil War on the side of the conservatives under the regent, General Mannerheim.
In the aftermath of the civil war, the Finns went from being under Russian control to being within the German sphere of influence and the German rulers had a plan to establish a German-led Finnish monarchy. However, this idea was shelved with the defeat of Germany in World War I and finally Finland emerged as an independent, democratic republic. Finally, a nation which had been so divided came together and Finnish society was reunited through social compromises based on a long-term culture of moderate politics and religion and the post-war economic recovery.
From December 1923 to May 1926, Akseli Gallen-Kallela lived in the United States, where an exhibition of his work toured several cities, and where he visited the Taos art-colony in New Mexico to study indigenous American art. In 1925 he began the illustrations for his “Great Kalevala”. This was still unfinished when he died of pneumonia in Stockholm on March 7th 1931, while returning from a lecture in Copenhagen. He was 65 years of age.
My blog today is a veritable “potpourri”. It is a blend of history and geography all carefully mixed with the usual large serving of art history. It is a tale of a lake and forest, a country’s change of sovereignty and an artist who lived through those times but fell in love with his habitat. Today’s blog is all about the Finnish painter Akseli Gallén-Kallela, but this was not the name he was born with and this change is down to the changing history of his birth nation, Finland.
If we look upon the history of Finland as a book, we should consider it as having three chapters. The first chapter would cover the period when what is now known as Finland was under the control of Sweden. This area was sandwiched between Sweden to the west and the Novgorod Republic to the east. However, as it is still the case in present times, ownership of land and “coveting thy neighbour’s goods” causes everlasting problems and Novgorod went to war with Sweden no fewer than 26 times over the land borders and the issue was not finally settled until August 12, 1323, when Sweden and Novgorod signed the Treaty of Nöteborg, which legalised their border for the first time. The Treaty allocated just the eastern part of Finland, such as Karelia, to Novgorod, whilst the western and southern parts of Finland were given to Sweden. As a consequence of this Swedish control in the west, the Swedish legal and social systems took root in Finland. During the Swedish period, Finland was merely a group of provinces and not a national entity and it was governed from Stockholm, which was the capital of the Finnish provinces at that time.
Gaining control of land is one thing, keeping the land is another. The great powerhouse of Sweden began to wane in the early 1700’s and Russia, which had absorbed Novgorod in the seventeenth century, began to look covetously at its western neighbour. When Sweden lost its position as a great power in the early 18th century, Russian pressure on Finland increased, and finally Russia conquered Finland in the 1808–1809 war with Sweden and the second chapter of Finnish history began.
After conquered by the Russian armies of Tsar Alexander I, Russia took control of Finland in 1809 and the country became an autonomous Grand Duchy, the head of state being the Grand Duke, the Russian Emperor, whose representative in Finland was the Governor General.
The third and final chapter in the history of Finland came in 1917 following the Russian Revolution when Finland declared itself independent. The following year the country was in tumult, divided by civil war brought on by an attempted coup by left-wing parties. An attempt was made to turn the country into a kingdom but this also failed. The Civil War finally ended in May 1918 when the government defeated the rebels and Finland became a republic in the summer of 1919.
So why the history lesson? Mainly for two reasons. My featured artist today lived between 1865 and 1931 and witnessed the changes in the history of his birthplace and was also part of the process of Finnicization, the changing of one’s personal names from other languages, in his case Swedish into Finnish in 1907. During the era of National Romanticism in Finland, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many people, especially Fennomans, who were supporters of a nationalist political movement in 19th-century Finland that wanted to raise Finnish to the national language of the country, finnicized their previously Swedish family names.
Today’s featured artist was born Axel Waldemar Gallén. His father was Peter Wilhelm Gallén who came from the small town of Lemu close to the city of Turku and whose family owned a farm named Kallela. Peter Gallén left the family home and went to study for a public service career, and in 1840 he succeeded his brother as police chief of Tyrvää. In 1841, when he was twenty-four-years-old, Peter married his elder brother’s adopted daughter Sofia Antoinette and put money into the Vanni estate which Sophie had inherited. The couple went on to have five children. In 1855 Sophie died and three years later, in 1858, Peter married for the second time.
His second wife was Mathilda Wahlroos, the daughter of a Pori sea captain and in 1862 Peter Gallén became one of the cashiers at the Pori office of the Bank of Finland. Peter and his second wife, Mathilda, had seven children in all, which made Peter a father of twelve, the third of these children born to Peter and Mathilda on April 26th, 1865 was Axel Waldemar Gallén.
In 1867 Peter Gallén left his job at the bank in Pori and returned to the Tyrvää region with his large family, including Axel, who was then two years old, and bought Jaatsi Farm, and on the land, he built himself a spacious residence. It was a rural environment and for the children it was a case of living and playing amongst unspoiled nature. Once settled in, Peter became a lawyer in a private practice in Tyrvää.
Axel had developed a love of art during his early days and his mother, Mathilda Gallén, who was a keen amateur painter, wanted her son to have an artistic career but her husband vehemently disagreed and was adamant that this was not a suitable career path for his son and so, in 1876, when Axel was eleven years old, he, along with two of his brothers Uno and Walter, was sent away to Helsinki to attend the Swedish-language grammar school. He was very disinterested in what he was being taught as all he could think about was art and all he had to console himself was to attend the evening course at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society from 1878 to 1881 and later the Central School for Applied Arts in 1880 and 1881. Axel’s father Peter died in 1879 and Axel’s life and future took another route – a route he had always wanted to travel along – a route towards the world of art, so when his grammar school education ended in 1881 he enrolled as a day student at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society. In 1883 he transferred to the model class, where his teacher was the Finnish landscape and portrait painter, Fredrik Ahlstedt.
In 1883 and in 1884 Axel was taught art by Albert Edelfelt, one of the first Finnish artists to attain international recognition and was one of the founders of the Realist art movement in Finland.
Axel Gallén also spent time studying at the private academy run by the Finnish genre painter and art professor Adolf von Becker from 1882 to 1884 and did drawings at the University’s dissecting room.
Adolf von Becker was his most dependable teacher in the area of French realism, and he greatly influenced Axel when it came to demonstrate the technique of plein air painting. One such work is Axel’s Boy with a Crow. Axel completed the painting and people were astounded by the finished work. What amazed people was that his depiction was so like many of the works by the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage and yet Axel had never been to France and seen the work of this great painter.
It is believed that Axel had learnt about the work of Bastien-Lepage through Albert Edelfelt who had lived in Paris and had been won over by the outdoor realism paintings of Lepage. The peasant boy depicted in the painting, Boy with a Crow, was known to Axel and he talked about the staging of the depiction, saying that the secret of his success with the painting was persuading the boy to believe that he could tame the crow by sprinkling salt on its tail feathers!
Probably persuaded by Edelfelt, Axel Waldemar Gallén, moved to Paris in the Autumn of 1884 and went to study at Académie Julian and the Atelier Cormon run by the French painter, Fernand Cormon. Axel studied at these establishments for the next five years. Equally as important to the artistic training he received at the Academy was the people he met. He recorded in his journal the bohemian lives of his artist and writer friends, such as the Swedish playwright and novelist, August Strindberg. He also spent time visiting art exhibitions, such as the Spring 1885 Jules Bastien-Lepage Memorial Exhibition when more than two hundred of the French painter’s pictures were exhibited at the École des Beaux-Arts, a year after the great man’s death.
Axel Gallén returned home in 1885. This was the year he painted his well-known work Akka ja kissa (‘Old Woman and Cat’) at the town of Salo. The elderly woman depicted in the painting was a local peasant who lived with her sheep. The initial painting just depicted the woman and the cat and the background was added once Axel returned to his studio in Tyrvää. The painting was a classic example of naturalism or rural naturalism which follows the concept that truth was more valuable than beauty and once again we can see the influence of Bastien-Lepage in this work. The painting was exhibited at the Finnish Art Society in the autumn of 1886 but opinions on the merit of the work were divided. The conservatives believed the painting to be ugly and the depiction of the woman, repulsive, whilst the liberals acclaimed the work for its realistic qualities.
Axel returned to Paris in late 1865 thanks to financial help from his mother and a government grant. Whilst in the French capital he completed a portrait of Herman Frithiof Antell, a licentiate of medicine and one of the most generous benefactors in Finnish cultural history.
So pleased was Antell with the portrait that two years later he commissioned Axel Gallén to paint a nude, which is now known as Démasquée (Uncovered). This is one of just a handful of nude paintings completed by Gallén. It was done by him in his Paris studio and it is the epitome of realism. The naked woman, almost certainly a French model, is seen seated on a colourful cover made up in the typical Finnish ryijy weave. This is not a depiction of a well-endowed beauty. This is a true depiction of an ordinary woman who seems very relaxed and happy to be sitting naked in front of the artist. Another aspect of realism is the fact that Axel depicted pubic hair in his portrayal of the woman which was unusual in European art.
Once again Alex returned to Finland in the summer of 1886 and this time settled down in the sparsely populated area around the small town of Korpilahti which lies in Central Finland. It is a beautiful area with over two hundred lakes as well as awe-inspiring mountains. It was during his stay here that Axel carried on with his rural realism depictions.
In the winter of 1886 Axel moved from Korpilahti to the Central Finnish town of Keuruu and stayed at Ekola Croft which appears in a number of his paintings such as The Ekola Croft in Evening Sunlight which he completed in 1889. The croft was on the shore of the large Keurusselkä lake and must have been an idyllic location.
Another painting he completed around this time was one entitled The First Lesson (also known as Ensi opetus). The setting is the interior of a log cabin and it depicts a father teaching his young daughter.
In the next part of my blog looking at the life and artwork of Axel Gallén (Akseli Gallén-Kallela) I will be delving into his later life, his marriage and his fascination with the Kalevala, the 19th-century work of epic poetry created and compiled by Elias Lonnrot.
besides Wilipedia, much of the information about the artist was gleaned from a number of websites, including:
Ateneum Art Museum: https://ateneum.fi/nayttelyarkisto/akseli-gallen-kallela-150-years/?lang=en