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Edelfelt, Albert (1854 - 1905)


Albert Edelfelt
Photo: Paul Heckscher, Literature Archives of the Finnish Literature Society

Albert Edelfelt, one of the most important Finnish visual artists, was well known in his time not only in Finland and contributed to winning respect for Finnish culture abroad. At the Paris Exposition in 1900, for example, his personal relationships and his lobbying enabled the Finns to exhibit as a group of their own in their own hall. As an artist, Edelfelt was not a reformer or rebel but kept to the middle of the road, purposefully striving for success - and achieving his goal.

Albert Edelfelt was one of the most important Finnish visual artists of all time. He was above all a painter, but he also worked as a graphic artist and illustrator. In his era he was the most respected Finnish artist abroad. He was also in his time the undisputed leading figure in Finnish art. As a popular portraitist at European courts, he was of much greater social importance than other artists. Above all, he helped to lay the foundations for Finland's cultural prestige abroad.

Much has been written about Edelfelt and his art. Five volumes of selections from letters to his mother have been published. Bertel Hintze, the author of a comprehensive biography of the artist, nevertheless complained that censorship on the part of relatives meant that the collections of letters did not reflect a complete picture of Edelfelt's life. Hintze left the task of painting a final portrait to future research. What was mainly involved was Edelfelt's relations with women; because of this the collection of letters was not made available to the public until 1985. The main features are now known, and in principle a portrait can now be sketched.

On his father's side, Edelfelt's family was of Swedish origin. His father, Carl Albert Edelfelt (1818 - 69), was descended from a military family from East Götaland which had been raised to the nobility in 1688. After the death of his father, Carl moved to Finland at the age of fourteen; there he lived with a maternal uncle and studied to become an architect. He rose to the position of provincial architect of Häme in 1855, and in 1867 he was appointed director-in-chief of the national board of public construction. In 1852 he had married Alexandra Brandt (1833 - 1901), the daughter of a wealthy merchant and shipowner in Porvoo. Alexandra Brandt had grown up at Kiiala Manor near Porvoo; her mother had inherited the property from an aunt.

Albert Edelfelt, the couple's first child, was born in 1854. Although his parents were living in Helsinki at this stage, Albert was born at Kiiala Manor, where he later spent his summers as a child. From his father he inherited a love of music and drawing. However, his mother - who had made appearances as an amateur poet and had been admitted to the circle surrounding J. L. Runeberg - was the person closest to the future artist. She steered her son towards Runebergian idealism and instilled in him an admiration for the national poet. To a large extent Albert Edelfelt was the creation of his ambitious mother. His relationship to her was both his greatest support and a limiting factor.

As a child Albert Edelfelt attracted attention with his passion for drawing, and his parents supported this interest in every way. In addition to attending grammar school he began lessons with Carl Sjöstrand at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society (Suomen Taideyhdistys) in 1869. In the following year he took private painting lessons with the German Bernhard Reinhold, who had taken up temporary residence in Finland to paint portraits.

Carl Edelfelt died of haemoptysis in spring 1869. He had run into financial difficulties as a result of debts and sureties, and this had put an added strain on his already poor health. However, through hard work, Alexandra Edelfelt succeeded in putting the home outwardly in order, and she did everything that she could for the education of her son and his three sisters, the youngest of whom was born after her father's death.

In spring 1871 Albert Edelfelt completed his secondary schooling. In autumn he enrolled at the University, his subjects being Latin, Greek and History. At the same time he broke off his studies at the drawing school and became a student of Adolf von Becker at the University's drawing studio. At university, student life was more important than his studies. For the summer of 1871 Edelfelt was hired as a sketch artist for the Finnish Antiquarian Society's first art-history field trip to south-western Finland and Ahvenanmaa.

Although Edelfelt broke off his university studies after the first year, he continued to attend the drawing studio, and in the spring of 1873 he also studied at Adolf von Becker's private academy. Word of his talent quickly spread. He also participated in the annual exhibition of the Finnish Art Society in 1872. Leading figures in the Finnish art world had great expectations. It was hoped that Edelfelt would present in pictures the heroic world that Runeberg had immortalised in his poetry. Thus he was advised initially to attend the Antwerp Academy of Art, and he went there in October 1873 on a government scholarship.

Romantic historical painting had already passed the peak of its popularity. Realistic detail had come to the fore. During a mere five months of studies in Antwerp, Edelfelt succeeded in being moved up to the highest class and in winning a prize as one of the best students. He wanted to go to Paris, and he arrived there in May 1874. Edelfelt began studying at the studio of the historical painter Jean-Léon Gérôme at France's art academy, the École des Beaux-Arts. He formed close friendships with young artists, the most important of whom for him was to be the champion of realist pleinairism Jules Bastien-Lepage.

The first largish work produced in Paris was his Rococo Woman, which won the 'Ducat' Award of Finnish Art Society. In 1875 he was commissioned by a Finnish Publisher to illustrate Runeberg's Julqvällen ('Christmas Eve'). On his return to Finland, Edelfelt painted a portrait of Hedvig Charlotta Raa-Winterhjelm in 1876. In February 1876 the young merchant Victor Hoving invited Edelfelt to accompany him to Rome, where they both contracted typhoid; Hoving died. After returning home, the artist was able to paint a portrait of his sister Ellen before she died of tuberculosis. This painting already shows him as an independent master.

Edelfelt continued his studies in Paris in the winter of 1876/77. Despite everything, he initially persisted with historical painting, but he made ever more obvious attempts to portray the sorts of basic human emotions that remain unchanged throughout the ages. Theatre and the expression of emotions had always interested him. The first important work was Kuningatar Blanka ('Queen Bianca'), painted for the Salon of 1877; inspired by Topelius' children's story, it depicts joy and maternal love. In this painting the artist is really in his element, revealing mainly himself. It is also a monument to his own maternal relationship. At both the Salon and the Paris Exposition of the following year, the picture was highly successful. In Finland it was awaited with great enthusiasm. As a reproduction it became one of the best-loved works of art of its time.

The spring of 1877 saw the production of other historical costume and genre paintings as well. Edelfelt spent the summer in Finland doing sketches for landscape paintings. Together with Adolf von Becker, he made a trip to eastern Finland and made pictures of typical local people in Jääski with a view to future requirements. In late autumn he began work on a very different type of historical painting in his Paris studio: Kaarle-herttua herjaamassa Klaus Flemingin ruumista ('Duke Karl Insulting the Corpse of Klas Fleming'). Edelfelt now wanted to dramatically depict hatred, thus demonstrating his mastery in an emotion opposite to that of his previous historical work. His inspiration came from paintings by Jean Paul Laurens which had earlier attracted attention.

The painting was well received at the Salon and was awarded a state prize in the competition for works depicting persons. It laid the foundation for Edelfelt's reputation and may be considered the crowning achievement of Finnish realist historical painting. But art of this sort was already becoming passé. Edelfelt was much criticised among his circle of friends for his theatricality. For the 1879 Salon, Edelfelt produced yet another historical painting, Poltettu kylä ('Burned Village'), a scene from the Finnish peasant revolt of 1596 - 97. His intention had been to work outdoors and produce a plein-air work, but the snow sketches painted in Helsinki in late 1878 before he left for Paris were inadequate, and he was not at all satisfied with the result. New aspects were common people in the main role and fear as the basic emotion. Despite his misgivings, this painting, too, was a success at the Salon, and in Finland its national content aroused interest.

At this stage Edelfelt had lost faith in the future of historical painting. He did not feel able to make the final breakthrough at the Salon with the methods employed thus far. He must paint a picture entirely out of doors and according to Nature if he were to make an impression at this great event. Bastien-Lepage's realist plein-air paintings seemed promising. He got to work in spring 1879 at Haikko, where his mother had rented a summer villa. As his subject he chose Lapsen ruumissaatto ('A Child's Funeral'), since the basic emotion was sorrow, which he had not yet used. The artist concentrated on the ways in which the different characters felt and expressed sorrow. What we have here is psychological realism, though Edelfelt produced the work as a plein-air piece. At the 1880 Salon the picture was awarded a third-class medal, the first received by a Finn. The artist's calculation had been correct, and the road to international fame was open.

In 1880 Edelfelt bought the estate manager's house at Haikko, and in 1883 he also built a studio on the land. In the spring of 1881 he made a trip to Spain, where the light and the influence of Velázquez made him broaden his brush stroke. At Haikko in 1881 the artist produced his plein-air work Jumalanpalvelus Uudenmaan saaristossa ('Divine Service in the Uusimaa Archipelago'), a painting which demonstrated that his views on plein-air painting were becoming firmer. At the Salon he received a second-class medal, and the work was purchased for the French state collections.

His success opened doors for Edelfelt not only on the international art market but also at the Russian Imperial Court. After his Duke Charles painting, Edelfelt had already been made an honorary member of the St Petersburg Academy of Arts. Lapsen ruumissaatto won him appointment as an academician, and the work was sold to a private collector in Moscow. In autumn 1881 he travelled to St Petersburg to present his acceptance work to Grand Duke Vladimir. A second reason was his love for a beautiful Russian woman, Sophie Manzey, whose portrait he had painted the previous year. The idea of marriage came to nothing, as the artist did not want to move to St Petersburg; but in other respects the trip was an unqualified success. The Tsar and Tsarina bought the work, which had been painted for an English art dealer, and commissioned several more. The artist stayed for two months at Gachina, where he painted a portrait of the imperial couple's youngest children. The personal satisfaction afforded to Alexander III and Maria Fyedorovna may have been of importance to Finland.

In Paris Edelfelt soon adopted the habit, common among French artists, of keeping a mistress. He readily fell in love with beautiful women, but the relationships did not always last long; exceptions during this phase of his life were his two beautiful French models. The first was Antonia Bonjean, his model in 1878-79; but the most important was the young teacher's daughter Virginie, who was his model from 1880 to 1883. Edelfelt is said to have had two children - a daughter and a son - by her, and he seriously contemplated marrying her. However, a visit to Paris by his mother and sister in spring 1883 put and end to the relationship.

The main work of 1882 was a portrait of his mother. In summer 1883 he produced Merellä, ('At Sea'), which was considered the best work from the Nordic countries at the 1884 Salon. It was bought by the Swedish art collector Pontus Fürstenberg. In the same year Edelfelt held his solo exhibitions in Copenhagen and Gothenburg and was made a member of the Academies of Art in both Denmark and Sweden.

In spring 1885 Edelfelt painted his famous Louis Pasteur. It was an example of a 'milieu' portrait, the subject being shown in his own characteristic surroundings. There were thus two pictures of Pasteur at the 1886 Salon, as the French master Léon Bonnat had also painted him. Victory went to the young Finn: the critics considered his the better painting. After this Edelfelt was overwhelmed with commissions for portraits, and the Pasteur portrait set off a veritable boom in the painting of milieu portaits of this type.

The years 1886 - 87 saw the production of the large painting of the Paris Luxembourgin puisto ('Luxembourg Gardens'). In exhibitions held at Georges Petit's gallery, Edelfelt had begun collaborating with leading French impressionists, a fact visible in this work. Light was an ever more important element; but at the same time there was no compromising over the detailed nature of his work. In his sketches and small works from the 1880s there are many features reminiscent of the impressionists. In summer 1887 he also undertook a deliberate experiment with naturalism in his Ruokolahden eukkoja kirkonmäellä ('Women outside the Church at Ruokalahti').

In 1888 Edelfelt married Baroness Anna Elise (Ellan) de la Chapelle. They had known each other since childhood and made an impressive couple, but the marriage was not a happy one. Their son Erik (1888 - 1910) was born at the end of the same year. Husband and wife slowly drifted apart. But Edelfelt looked after his family right to the end.

At the same time when Edelfelt was coming close to the impressionists in his small Helsinki paintings as far as instantaneity and the treatment of light were concerned, signs of the advent of neoromanticism were appearing in his work, too. At Saari Manor in summer 1889, he painted his Kaukolan harju auringonlaskun aikaan ('Kaukola Ridge at Sunset'); the lyrical feel of a Nordic summer night is expressed in a painting formally influenced by Japanism. In the following year Edelfelt painted his Kristus ja Mataleena ('Christ and Mary Magdalene'), which was inspired by the 'Kanteletar' collection of folk-poems. In 1893 he also touched upon Karelianism in his Larin Paraske pictures. He was, however, no longer the obvious leader that he had once been. A group of important Fennoman painters had arisen in Finland and were steering the country's art in a direction of their own. However, Edelfelt continually did his best to foster young artists.

At the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, the Louis Pasteur portrait received a gold medal, the grande médaille d'honneur, and soon after this Edelfelt was appointed an officer of the Legion of Honour and then, in 1901, a commander of this order. His career as a portraitist was at its peak. His psychological skill was beyond dispute, and he strove to immortalise the best aspects of his subjects. The fact that milieu portraits were now becoming common contributed especially to the popularity of portraiture. One of the high points of Edelfelt's portrait art is his large painting of the singer Aino Ackté done during rehearsals at the Paris Grand Opera. Another important work is the 1902 portrait of the professor Johan Wilhelm Runeberg.

The mural in the Great Hall of the University of Helsinki took up a considerable portion of Edelfelt's career. A competition was held in 1891 and resulted in Edelfelt's winning the commission for the main picture, Turun akatemian vihkiäiset ('The Inauguration of Turku Academy'). (The Turku Academy was the direct predecessor of the University of Helsinki.) He had researched the subject during his many trips abroad, but he did not complete the painting until 1904. It was an impressive finale to his career as a historical painter. Unfortunately the work was destroyed during the bombing in 1944.

Illustrating Carl Snoilsky's collection of poems was a pleasant task for Edelfelt, since it allowed him to deal with the Rococo and the era of Gustavus Vasa. The work was completed in 1894. Another major undertaking was the illustrations for Runeberg's 'Ensign Stål' stories (1894 - 1900). Here his patriotic eloquence was at its most powerful. Before this he produced his well-known gouache paintings Porilaisten marssi ('The March of the Men of Pori'; 1892) and Wilhelm von Schwerin (1893). In his final years, his interests also included etchings and drypoint engravings, which he started to do in the late 1890s under the influence of Alfred Finch.

Edelfelt had also maintained continual contacts with the Russian Empire. In early 1896 he had exhibited some of his main works in St Petersburg. In the same spring he painted an official portrait of Nikolai II for Finland. As an exception, the Tsar agreed to sit for the painting himself, and he also commissioned an intimate portrait as a gift for the Tsarina. In May 1896, along with other academicians, Edelfelt was an official painter at the coronation ceremonies in Moscow. In 1897 and 1898 the St Petersburg Academy of Arts officially offered him a professorship at the Academy. Though he considered this a great honour, he declined the offer. At the Paris Exposition in 1900, his personal relationships and his lobbying enabled the Finns to exhibit as a group of their own in their own hall.

In the output of his final years, Edelfelt did try to keep abreast of the times; but symbolism and synthetism did not interest him particularly. The large Ulkosaaristossa ('In the Outer Archipelago') painted in summer 1898 reflects Runebergian idealism, depicted in a more broad-minded style and boldly composed.

Marriage seems to have somewhat restrained Edelfelt's amorous escapades for ten years or so. Not until the end of the century did he try another public relationship - with the widow of a Turkish colonel. After this came love affairs with the Russian model Olga from Kiev and finally with the beautiful Frenchwoman Madame Durand. Edelfelt's sensual and passionate relationships with women played a large role in his life. Ville Vallgren, who gave Hintze the most detailed description of them, regarded the artist's insatiability in this respect as an outright threat to his health. Edelfelt also worked at a merciless pace, and heart failure took his life in August 1905.

A large memorial exhibition for Edelfelt was held in 1910. At the international level, however, the artist quickly began to be forgotten, with the breakthrough of modern art. But there has been a gradual realisation of the bias of such an attitude, and scholars are showing renewed interest in art which was so much admired at the time. There is certainly no denying that Edelfelt was a middle-of-the-road artist whose success was carefully calculated. A reformer or rebel he was not; but he was a magnificent painter, and probably his life's work was most valuable to Finland just as it was. He taught the world to respect Finnish culture at exactly the right time.

Aimo Reitala

Translated by Roderick Fletcher


Albert Gustaf Aristides Edelfelt, born 21.7.1854 Kiiala Manor, Porvoo district, died 18.8.1905 Haikko, Porvoo district. Parents: Carl Albert Edelfelt, architect, and Alexandra Augusta Brandt. Wife: 1888 - 1905 Anna Elise (Ellan) de la Chapelle, born 1857, died 1921, wife's parents: Baron Carl Viktor de la Chapelle and Julia Josefina Elisabet Lepsen. Child: Erik, born 1888, died 1910

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