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November 01, 2005

Peripheral Artists (1): Albert Edelfelt

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The words "Peripheral Artists" in this posting's title have a double meaning. This is the first in an occasional series dealing with artists who (1) came from Europe's geographical periphery and (2) are considered peripheral to the currently-accepted narrative of the history of art.

For these reasons alone they are probably unknown, even to many college-educated Americans having an art history or art appreciation class under their belt. My hope is to help make them better known.

(By the way, I encountered these artists largely because I recently visited many of the countries bordering the Baltic Sea. Guide books sometimes mentioned important local artists, so I tried to visit museums to view their work.)

Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905) was Finnish even though his name doesn't seem Finnish and Finland was not a country during his lifetime. Maybe I'd better explain this.

Prior to 1809, Sweden ruled Finland, but had to cede it to Russia following defeat in their 1808-9 war. Finland became an autonomous grand duchy in the Russian Empire, the Grand Duke being the Czar himself. Finland gained independence in 1917 following the disintegration of the czarist regime.

Thanks to proximity to Sweden and centuries of Swedish rule, Swedes comprised a significant minority in Finland and Swedish is an official language along with Finnish (today the proportion of the population using Swedish as their native tongue has declined to the 5-10 percent range).

Biographical Sketch

Albert Edelfelt photo 1.jpg
Albert Edelfelt

Edelfelt was of Swedish stock and spoke Swedish. His father was an architect whose family had been raised to the Swedish nobility in the 17th Century. His mother came from a wealthy merchant family. But his father gotten into financial trouble and died when Edelfelt was about 15, his mother then tidying up the money situation and giving encouragement to Albert's artistic efforts.

Following a short stay at university and a couple art schools, Edelfelt headed to Antwerp to study art on a government scholarship. Seven months after arriving, in May 1874 he bolted to Paris where he studied at the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux Arts. He was also influenced by the rising artist Jules Bastien-Lepage, an artist little-known today, but important in the early 1880s.

Like many young artists of the time, he produced paintings with historical subjects -- history paintings were (metaphor alert!) the top rung of the subject hierarchy in the days when academies ruled the artistic roost. His best-known historical painting is "Duke Karl Insulting the Corpse of Klas Fleming" which won a salon prize and brought welcome recognition.

Duke Charles Insulting the Body of His Enemy Fleming 1- 1878.jpg
"Duke Karl Insulting the Corpse of Klas Fleming" 1878

Around this time Edelfelt soured on historical subjects for a number of years, turning to the everyday-life genre. An important result was "A Child's Funeral" (scroll to botton of linked page) which won a 3rd-class medal at the 1880 Paris Salon. (Apparently, the scene that inspired him was actually a boat ride to a child's christening. He altered the event to enhance its emotional impact.) Even though the painting was criticized by some in Finland, it furthered his career because it received the only prize given to a non-French artist that year.

This success opened doors in St. Petersburg, the Czar and Czarina buying one of his paintings and commissioning portraits of their children. Czarist patronage continued through later reigns, as the painting below indicates.

Nicholas II - 1896.jpg
"Nicholas II" 1896

And it was another portrait that bumped Edelfelt's reputation even higher. This was his 1885 portrait of scientist Louis Pasteur exhibited at the 1886 Salon. French master Léon Bonnat also had a Pasteur portrait at the Salon, but Edelfelt's painting was the critical success, resulting in his becoming a member of the Légion d'Honneur.

Portrait of Louis Pasteur.jpg
"Louis Pasteur" 1885

"A Child's Funeral" was in part a plein-air work, and he continued outdoor-based painting while cashing in with portraiture. These plein-air paintings were influenced by Impressionism, which displeased Gérôme. A notable example is "The Luxembourg Gardens."

The Luxembourg Gardens - 1887 .jpg
"The Luxembourg Gardens" 1887

From art school days through the rest of his life, Edelfelt spent much of his time in Paris, picking up mistresses along the way. One was the subject of his painting "Virginie" -- some sources assert she had two children by him, others refute this.

"Virginie" 1883

He did spend time in Finland, often plein-air painting. "Kaukola Ridge at Sunset" is perhaps his best-known landscape.

Kaukola Ridge at Sunset - 1890.jpg
"Kaukola Ridge at Sunset" 1889-90

He married Baroness Anna Elise de la Chapelle in 1888. The union resulted in a son who outlived his father by only five years, but apparently it was not a happy one, Edelfelt charging on with affairs with beautiful ladies.

During the last ten years of his life, Edelfelt made little effort to keep up with Paris art-world trends. He was content to do portraits, quasi-Impressionist plein-air works and mural commissions with historical subjects. He worked hard and played hard, dying of heart failure not long after his 51st birthday.


Finland's leading art museum is the Ateneum in Helsinki which I was able to briefly visit before its closing hour one Sunday. A good many Edelfelt paintings were on display. These, along with paintings by Axel Gallén (who I'll discuss in a later posting), stood out from most of the rest of the art.

Clearly, Edelfelt was not an innovator. As far as I'm concerned there's nothing wrong with this, although it sometimes seems that art history books and classes tend to honor innovation and not much else.

I rate Edelfelt as a highly competent painter of his era. Although trained in an academic environment, he was influenced by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists whose work he saw while living in Paris. My take is that he, like John Singer Sargent, was Post-Impressionist with an Academy tinge.

Like his contemporary Sargent, Edelfelt's career flourished in the last two decades before Modernism in its Expressionist and Cubist guises began to dominate the art scene in the early 20th Century. And again like Sargent, Edelfelt made no special effort to change his style to fit the changing scene.

Sadly, the little illustrations embedded in this posting don't convey the impact of in-the-flesh viewing of Edelfelt's paintings. The originals are generally very satisfying, and I would happily scoop up a few were I filthy-rich.



posted by Donald at November 1, 2005


Virginie looks remarkably like Jeanne Samary, don't you think?

Posted by: Tatyana on November 1, 2005 11:30 PM

Thanks, very interesting and informative. And you won't be surprised to learn that I'd never heard of the guy. He was very talented -- I love the images, and would love to see some in person too. And what a relief to take a break from the usual obsession with innovation. The corners that get turned are interesting, but the straightaways and curves are just as interesting, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 2, 2005 12:12 PM

I have a, er, peripheral point! Look at the photograph of Edelfelt in the studio. Don't you love the look of studios from this historical period? They all look remarkably similar in photos - the dark, slightly scuffed wood of the floors, the size of rooms, the paintings hung on the wall, often with those long 'V' shaped wires holding them up (do you know what I mean?), the rugs covering furniture instead of floors (not in this particular case). Am I a total loon to focus on that point? Considering the color photos of the depression recently pointed to on this blog, wouldn't it be wonderful to see some of these studios in color?

Okay, peripheral point pointed out. My job is done.

Posted by: MD on November 2, 2005 02:22 PM

Tatyana -- They do. Maybe a lot a French gals looked like that in those days. Source material on Edelfelt written in English is pretty thin, but the best I have on "Virginie" is that she was "a young teacher's daughter" where "young" referred to Virginie and not the teacher -- I guess. The account doesn't mention if she later became an actress and changed her name, but I'll assume the two portraits are of different women, resemblance aside.

Michael -- This business about innovation as the main yardstick for evaluating artists is troublesome. Maybe it has to do with the notions of change and progress that might not have amounted to much in some eras but which have been strong in the West for at least the last couple hundred years or so. (Please chime in Friedrich, this is your turf.) When everyone is focusing on who did what first, the matter of who did what best goes un-debated. This is a theme I plan to revisit from time to time.

MD -- And have you noticed how well-dressed the painters were? Given how messy oil paints are, many painters probably used some sort of robe or smock for protection, though to remain respectable (when doing portraits, anyhow), they almost surely wore coats and ties to signify their social status.

When I was taking oil painting classes, we usually bought white lab jackets from the medical school store. But often we'd still get paint on the hem which soon would brush up against our trousers and get them paint-streaked as well.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 2, 2005 09:18 PM

Donald--have you heard of this guy? He was a "melancholy Dane" from about the same period, who had a show at the Guggenheim.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on November 2, 2005 10:16 PM

Winnifer -- Thanks for the heads-up: I didn't know about him. I'm more familiar with Peder Kroyer, Michael Ancher and Laurits Tuxen, but will look into Hammershoi too.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 2, 2005 11:12 PM

Just a note. Axel Gallén changed his name later in life and is probably better known as Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

Posted by: franktjm on November 3, 2005 05:01 PM

What I want to know is the historical background behind that one piece. I mean, maybe a cat can look at a king, but why would a duke insult a corpse? Holding the cursor over the painting calls up a slightly different title, which identifies the dear departed a little more in depth as the duke's enemy. So what's going on here. Is the duke gloating? "Ha ha! You thought you could get the better of me but I'm still alive and you're stone cold dead! Nyah!" And why is the incident so significant in Finno-Swedish history that it merits a painting?


Posted by: Dwight Decker on November 4, 2005 06:07 PM

Dwight -- Following the death of King John III of Sweden in the 1590s, there was a dispute over whether his son Sigismund should become king. Sigismund was already king of Poland-Lithuania (a county stretching from the Baltic to the Black seas in those times), plus he was raised Catholic, not to the liking of Lutheran Swedes. John's brother, Duke Charles, essentially took control of Sweden. Sigismund invaded Sweden but was eventually defeated. Fleming, Governor of Finland, had sided with Sigismund, earning Charles' hate.

Cut and paste the following links into your browser bar for more info:

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 4, 2005 07:34 PM

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