Imatra Falls in Winter
Imatra Falls in Winter

Akseli Gallen-Kallela

National Fervour and Symbolism in Finnish Art

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The influence of plein-air painting

The plein-air method drove Finnish artists out into the midst of the peasantry and into the natural landscape.

Artists, who usually had an upper-class background, began to make excursions into the “original Finland” that was supposed to lie in the forest wilderness of Karelia.


Landscape painting and realistic depictions of ordinary folk led to the development of National Romanticism, a movement which also pervaded literature, music and architecture.

The most determined and undiluted National Romanticist was Akseli Gallen-Kallela, whose life’s ambition was to illustrate the entire Kalevala, Finland’s national epic.

By Finnish standards, Gallen-Kallela is something of a Renaissance artist, best known for his oil paintings and prints, but also a designer of stained-glass windows, furniture and textiles.

He designed his own studio-home, as well as uniforms for the Finnish army, and a proposal for the Finnish flag. 


If the National Romantic movement focused on the soul of the people, Symbolism was preoccupied with the basic questions of human existence.

Life and death were strongly present. Hugo Simberg gave death human embodiment, and his black-cloaked skeletons are among the best-loved figures in Finnish art.

Magnus Enckell approached the central concerns of Symbolism through his ageless and universal studies of boys.

However, there were also notable artists who worked outside the stylistic movements of their day.

Helene Schjerfbeck

Helene Schjerfbeck‘s contribution to the development of Finnish art deserves separate mention.

Among the work she completed is a series of dozens self-portraits, which charts the course of her long life, from the self-assured face of youth to the elderly woman confronting death.


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