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December 03, 2005

Peripheral Artists (2): Axel Gallén

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This is the second in a series of posts about painters who were figuratively peripheral to Established Narrative of the history of art and geographically peripheral in Europe. The first post, about Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt, is here.

The subject of the present post is another Finnish painter, Axel Gallén (1865-1931), born to a Swedish-speaking family, who became a Finnish-nationalist icon, changing his name in 1907 to the Finnish form Akseli Gallén-Kallela (the appended name in reference to an ancestral farm).

For more detailed biographical information than I'll present below, you can link here and here; the link to The Gallén-Kallela Museum is here.

Should you find yourself in Helsinki with a few hours to spare and visit the Ateneum art museum, you'll see many paintings by Gallén. And as is almost always the case, they are more impressive in reality than they seem in illustrations such as those presented below.

Gallén, like Edelfelt, received his early training in Finland (some of it from Edelfelt himself) and then moved to Paris, staying there for about three years total in two sessions between 1884 and 1889. Both times he was enrolled in the Académie Julien, a popular spot for non-French artists such as Childe Hassam and Robert Henri as well as French-born artists such as Matisse. While in Paris, Gallén was influenced by the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), an artist who influenced many others in the 1880s including the "Glasgow Boys" (stay tuned for postings on Bastien-Lepage, some of the Boys and the painting scene in the mid-1880s).

Unlike Edelfelt, Gallén turned from French influence as the 19th Century waned, drifting towards German Expressionism in the 20th Century. Mixed with this artistic change was an increasingly heightened sense of Finnish nationalism (Finland was part of the Russian Empire in those days) manifested in the desire to illustrate Finnish folk-myths such as the Kalevala.

By the time of the Great War, Gallén was morphing into a traveler and "character." He was welcomed in Germany and Hungary -- the latter was satisfying, thanks to the kinship between the Hungarian and Finnish languages (though nothing I've read indicates how well Gallén actually spoke Finnish). He and his family spent months in what is now Kenya, where he met safari-ing former President Teddy Roosevelt. In the early 20s he spent more than two years in the United States, much of the time in Taos, New Mexico, still in its early years as an artistic Mecca.

Upon Finnish independence in 1917 Gallén sided with General Carl Mannerheim, who emerged victorious in the post-war, post-revolutionary turbulence that swept over the former Russian Empire. He held some important positions, working on ambitious illustration projects all the while his artistic skills were withering. Gallén died of pneumonia in Stockholm 7 March 1931 while on his way home from giving lectures in Denmark.


Gallen - Boy and Crow - 1884.jpg
"Boy and Crow" -- 1884
Although painted before Gallén reached Paris and became influenced by Bastien-Lepage, this resembles contemporary works by some "Glasgow Boys" who already were under Bastien-Lepage's spell.

There's one large, prominently-displayed Gallén painting (Demasquée) in the Ateneum that's not quite work- or child-safe. It's a full-frontal of one of his Paris models sitting on his couch (by the way, the blanket on the couch can be seen in at least one other of his paintings). She's smoking a cigarette, which is why we exquisitely-sensitive souls at 2Blowhards have censored this work. However, we thoughtfully offer you this link to it.

Gallen - Aino Myth Triptych - 1891.jpg
"Aino Triptych" (second version) -- 1891
The Aino triptych's female model is said to be Gallén's wife. For a larger, perhaps not-quite office/child-safe view which (though a bit blurred) matches the impressively-painted original more closely, click here.

Gallen - Shepherd Boy from Paanajarvi - 1892.jpg
"Shepherd Boy from Paanajarvi" -- 1892
This is an example of his nationalist work before he moved toward Expressionism.

Gallen - Symposium - 1894.jpg
"Symposium" -- 1894
An oil sketch that includes composer Jan Sibelius at the right.

Gallen - The Defence of the Sampo - 1896.jpg
"Defense of the Sampo" -- 1896
An example of his mythic-nationalist art.

Gallen - Portrait of Maxim Gorky - 1906.jpg
"Portrait of Maxim Gorki" -- 1906
Gallén was a friend of Gorki, though their politics likely meshed only in their dislike (for differing reasons) of the Russian Empire.

Gallen - Uffizi Self-Portrait - 1916.jpg
"Self-Portrait" -- 1916
Commissioned by the Uffizi Gallery as part of its self-portrait series.


Many years ago (was it in my Art History class?) I was fed the notion that painters tended to improve with age -- assuming no afflictions such as blindness or arthritis of the painting arm-hand. While recognizing the factors of learning-curves and increased wisdom, I no longer wholeheartedly buy into that notion.

Gallén is a case in point. In my opinion, it was downhill for him once he reached age 30, his art after age 50 being pretty mediocre.

However, his earlier work is impressive, especially when viewed in person, as can be done at Helsinki's Ateneum. The "National-Romanticism" of his art and in Baltic architecture 1890-1910 intrigues me greatly. Perhaps it's time for a comprehensive American exhibit of circa-1895 Baltic art and architecture like the Guggenheim's current Russia project in New York and Las Vegas.



posted by Donald at December 3, 2005


I'm not sure if the model in Demasquee is actually smoking a cigarette. What looks initially like a whiff of smoke might be a design on the wall paper.

Posted by: Peter on December 3, 2005 3:08 PM

Donald--Don't overlook, though, that the art of Hendrik Goltzius got better and better as he got older, and all with a withered right hand.
I've seen several ads in the TIMES for a speaker of Latvian, Russian, and French to work in a Baltic art gallery--so what you suggest may be near upon us.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on December 3, 2005 5:05 PM

Peter -- For some reason when I saw the painting in person at the Ateneum I didn't notice a cigarette either. Of course, I didn't pay much attention to her right hand, instead focusing on, uh, other details.

The cigarette thing I got from someone else's commentary. I just checked a full-page reproduction in a book about him I bought in Helsinki and I don't quite make out a cagarette in it. Still, in those days, cigarettes could have been hand-rolled, not the tidy machine-made ones we're familiar with.

Regardless, I though the cigarette ploy was a kinda cute, PC-mocking ploy to link rather than display the image; I'm super-prudish compared to Michael.

Winifer -- I don't at all deny that artists can and do improve over their careers, even when infirmities kick in. I contend (and will some day do a post on it) that quite a few artists peak earlier than some critics suggest, even some pretty famous artists (Monet, anyone?).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 4, 2005 8:57 PM


I'm looking forward to your piece on Jules Bastien-Lepage, who was an extraordinarily strong influence on painting in his era yet who has become virtually unknown as a result of the standard account of Modernism.

I agree, BTW, that Monet was a much stronger painter in his youth than in his dotage. Most of his paintings that really make me pause and go "Wow" were painted early on. While all painters are "supposed" to imitate Rembrandt and become deeper and stronger as they explore their self-marked turf, many of those whose gift involves large doses of facility (and Monet was one) seem to gradually stultify once they settle into their signature style. I would include Titian in this latter category, BTW, despite his absolute centrality to European painting, so a decline from youth doesn't imply a lightweight status.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 6, 2005 5:11 AM

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