100 Years of Independence: Four Works by Finnish Artists

By Richard Lowkes

O ne centenary has been widely commemorated in London this year, notably with the Royal Academy's Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 exhibition. But 2017 also marks 100 years since Finland gained independence from its eastern neighbour. Known in the west for the music of Sibelius, the architecture and design of Alvar Aalto, and for being a country with more saunas than cars, the art of Finland is increasingly gaining international recognition. An exhibition of work by Helene Schjerfbeck and other Finnish women artists recently took place in New York, and London currently sees shows of Tove Jansson and Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

Sotheby's is privileged to be offering four works by leading Finnish artists in our 19th Century European Paintings sale on 13 December. All four works in the sale will be exhibited in Helsinki on Thursday 30 November at Snellman Sotheby's International Realty.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Rower On The Lake. Estimate: £70,000–100,000.

In the late 19th and early 20th century Finland saw an outpouring of artistic creativity. Artists dreamt of independence, and created a new visual language for the Finnish landscape which still shapes how Finns see their country today. Foremost among these artists was Akseli Gallen-Kallela, whose Rower on the Lake is coming to auction for the first time in its history. In this work of 1916, Gallen-Kallela reprised an earlier motif from a work of 1891 which is now in the Serlachius Foundation. The work was probably painted at Gallen's lakeside studio 'Kalela', whose name the artist adopted, near Lake Ruovesi.

Eero Järnefelt, Sunset Over A Lake. Estimate: £150,000–200,000.

Like Gallen, Eero Järnefelt took inspiration from his country's lakes, especially Lake Pielinen in Karelia in the country’s east.  Painted the year after the first performance of the Karelia Suite by the artist’s brother-in-law Jean Sibelius, the work reflects the beliefs embodied in the so-called Karelia movement. These writers, artists, and composers held that the region embodied the authentic soul of Finland, as the origin of the national Kalevala myth. In its composition and colours, Sunset over a Lake also demonstrates the influence of Japanese art and print culture on Nordic art at the time, recently explored in the Japanomania exhibition which travelled from Helsinki to Oslo and Copenhagen. Thanks in no small part to Järnefelt’s paintings, the region of Koli is now designated as a national park.

Helene Schjerfbeck, The Girl From California. Estimate: £150,000–200,000.

Less concerned with the cultural politics of the independence struggle, the art of the reclusive female artist Helene Schjerfbeck instead belongs to a more private sphere. Like her compratriots Gallen-Kallela and Järnefelt, Schjerfbeck trained in Paris, but abandoned her earlier Naturalist style to embrace a highly personal modernism around 1900. Painted circa 1927, The Girl from California has remained in the same family since being acquired from the artist, and belongs to a series of five works depicting Ulrika Baarman, a family friend who was born in San Francisco. Most of the five are now in prominent public collections in Finland, another one having formerly belonged to the actress Ingrid Bergman.

Helene Schjerfbeck, Camellias. Estimate: £200,000–300,000.

The sale also presents Camellias, a prime example of the still lifes which Schjerfbeck turned to later in her career, at the height of her renown. Painted in 1934, the work has not been seen in public for some thirty-five years.

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