T his large scale oil painting by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1861-1931) was consigned to Sotheby’s from a Finnish client using the on-line 'request an estimate' service and sold for £350,000 in the 19th Century European Paintings sale on 11 December. It was recorded as being with Gosta Stenman, a noted Finnish art dealer, early in the 20th century, then has remained in private hands ever since and come down to the present owner by descent. It has never been at auction before. The artist has become hot property in recent years, an important name in Nordic art and one whose stock has risen, probably helped by the National Gallery buying a superb painting of Lake Keitele in 1999 and hosting the exhibition 'Lake Keitele: A Vision of Finland’ from November 2017 to February 2018. The larger 2012 retrospective exhibition that travelled from Helsinki to the Musee D'Orsay, Paris and on to Dusseldorf was also important in establishing his name in Europe.
Lake Ruovesi is a comparatively late work for Gallen-Kallela as he painted less after the First World War, involving himself more in writing and politics. By 1916, the year of this painting, his style had shifted towards Expressionism, his preferred subject being Finnish landscapes, usually, as in this example, painted from his hide-out studio in Kallela, looking down through trees towards one of the lakes that dominate the countryside there. Here we see the play of light on snow, and the sun rising over an ice-bound lake. He depicts a moment of still and tranquility, and the cold blue shadows of the trees in the foreground add interest and strength to the painting. His paintings have a meditative quality which hold the attention, a result of a strong and simple colour palette. The single large tree dominating the righthand side of the canvas, with its unusual composition where both top and bottom are cropped, shows the influence of Japanese prints on his art.
His early works in the 1880s had been in the style of French social-realism – unsurprisingly as he learnt his craft in France, studying under various artists and painting in the style of Jules Bastien Lepage. In the 1890s he was drawn to symbolism, and his work takes on a more graphic quality; it is no coincidence that he also turned his hand to illustration and painted frescoes at this time, which require precision as they cannot be overworked. His illustrations for the Kalevela, a book of Finnish folk tales, were precise and well-drawn and Gallen-Kallela contributed to a revival of the book, which became a symbol of Nationalism and pride for the Finns in their desire for Independence from Russia.
Gallen-Kallela was a friend of Jean Sibelius and both believed that they could use their talents to revive Finnish art and use their work to encourage Nationalism. Thus his interest in the Kalevela where the heroes of folk lore, updated with subtle symbolist clues, can be interpreted as fighting to throw off the Russian oppressor. Indeed in 1907 he changed his name from Gallen to the more Finnish Gallen-Kallela, the name taken from his studio retreat in the heart of the country.
We see his mature Naturalist style in Lake Ruovesi, but his paintings usually retained elements of his symbolist past, such as the zig-zag patterns in the water in Lake Keitele, his 1905 work which to Gallen-Kallela evoked the wake of the mythical Finnish rowing hero Väinämöinen. The fissures in the ice in Lake Ruovesi anticipate Finland's imminent political and economic freedom from Russia. As Gallen-Kallela recounted: 'in 1913 it started to become clear to me and perhaps to some others also that soon Finland would gain its independence...'
Lake Ruovesi and his other mature works, with their meditative appeal and beautiful Nordic light, will hopefully spread the artist’s reputation further so he becomes known not just as a major Finnish painter but recognized all over the world as a major painter.