Ateneum Art Museum

by Cathy Locke

Portrait Gallery
Portrait Gallery

I love stopping in Helsinki on my way to Russia, spending the night then taking the train into St. Petersburg. The last time I was there, in August 2018, I took the opportunity to visit Ateneum Art Museum. Simply put, a gem. Trump had just had his summit with Putin in Helsinki. There was such a contrast between the noise of politics outside and the serene quiet and introspection inside the museum.

Edvard Munch, “Self-portrait” (date?) oil on panel
Edvard Munch, “Self-portrait” (date?) oil on panel

Opened in 1888, Ateneum Art Museum is Finland’s oldest and largest art collection. The collection contains some of the best of the Finnish Golden Age (1880-1910) as well as artwork from Scandinavia, Europe and Russia. This small museum has only 370 works on display, divided into galleries by theme and spread over three floors. Ateneum’s building was once an art school, thus the museum has always been a house of artists. The museum’s collection originated with the work of the Finnish Art Society, founded in 1846, which began by acquiring artists’ self-portraits. This art form has become an important symbol of self-identity and independence for the Finns, as Finland did not gain independence until December 6, 1917. In fact, Vladimir Lenin came to Helsinki prior to entering St. Petersburg at the time of the 1917 Revolution. A long corridor in the museum known as the Portrait Gallery has a salon-style hanging of 72 paintings and 13 sculptures of artists’ portraits, many of which are self-portraits. One of these charming self-portraits is by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. 


Anders Zorn, “Girls Bathing in the Open Air” (1890) oil on canvas, state deposit 1898
Anders Zorn, “Girls Bathing in the Open Air” (1890) oil on canvas, state deposit 1898

Artwork by Scandinavian artists was never on my radar until I started studying Russian art. It was then that I discovered masters like Swedish artist Anders Zorn. These artists were influenced by European and Russian art. At the end of the 19th century, Paris was the center of European art and attracted artists from the Nordic countries. Parisian influences soon began to appear in their art. Romanticism was replaced by outdoor painting and realism, of which Zorn was a master. Ateneum has a strong collection of iconic works from this period in the history of art.

Albert Edelfelt, “Conveying the Child’s Coffin” (1879) oil on canvas, purchased 1907
Albert Edelfelt, “Conveying the Child’s Coffin” (1879) oil on canvas, purchased 1907

The annual Salon exhibitions in Paris offered artists an opportunity for a great breakthrough. A case in point is the painting Conveying the Child’s Coffin (1879) by Finnish artist Albert Edelfelt, which won a third-class medal. In Finland this period became known as the Golden Age, representing a distillation of Finnish identity, people and landscape. A painting like Conveying the Child’s Coffin just begs to engage your soul. There is such a quiet beauty to this painting, while carrying a deafening impact. This type of engagement can only happen if the artist personally has felt such sorrow. Edelfelt’s father died when he was fifteen, leaving his mother with the burden of supporting the family. Edelfelt began his education by enrolling in the university in Helsinki but felt their teaching methods were lacking. Next he enrolled in the Antwerp Academy of Art in 1873. After studying historical painting there for six months, he moved to Paris to continue his learning process.Though Edelfelt lived in Paris for 15 years, he visited his hometown of Porvoo on the southern coast of Finland during the summer months. There he could spend time with his mother, whom he remained very close to all of her life. In fact, he died a few years after she passed. You can still make a visit to Edelfelt’s summer studio (, where he worked on  Conveying the Child’s Coffin, as well as Boys Playing on the Shore


Albert Edelfelt, “Boys Playing on the Shore” (1884) oil on canvas, Ahlstrom Collection, purchased 1930
Albert Edelfelt, “Boys Playing on the Shore” (1884) oil on canvas, Ahlstrom Collection, purchased 1930

Albert Edelfelt, Kaukola Ridge at Sunset (1889-1890) oil on canvas, purchase 1976
Albert Edelfelt, Kaukola Ridge at Sunset (1889-1890) oil on canvas, purchase 1976​

The landscape of the Finnish archipelago is breath-taking. The summertime in Finland is a very special time – the sun does not set until very late, and the nights are very light. The museum’s director Maija Tanninen-Mattila wrote, “There is a special light and colors of the north, the beauty of our bright summer nights, and the characteristic atmosphere of the Nordic winter.” Edelfelt was able to capture this light in his painting Kaukola Ridge at Sunset (1889-1890). Another stunningly beautiful piece with a powerful impact. Finnish landscapes captured the untamed nature and pristine wilderness of their country. An untouched lake landscape seen from high above, as painted in Kaukola Ridge at Sunset, is considered the perfect representation of a Finnish landscape.

Albert Edelfelt, “Women Outside the Church at Ruokolahti” (1887) oil on canvas, state deposit 1888
Albert Edelfelt, “Women Outside the Church at Ruokolahti” (1887) oil on canvas, state deposit 1888

Idealized paintings of the Finnish people became popular in the last decades of the 19th century, where both peasants and gentlefolk were depicted in a romantic light. The scenes accurately depicted Finnish folklore, dress and surroundings. In 1887, Edelfelt made a trip to South Karelia, Finland, where he made sketches of women and children on a church hill that served as the basis of his painting Women Outside the Church at Ruokolahti (1887). The models in the final painting were from Haikkoo, north of South Karelia. Such ethnographically accurate and seemingly realistic depictions of Finnish countryside were regarded as exotic by the Parisian art circles, and works such as this contributed to Edelfelt’s international success. Back home, the work was criticized for, among other things, hands that were depicted too realistically. The painting was donated to the newly opened Ateneum Art Museum by the Finnish Senate in 1888. 

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, “Boy with a Crow” (1884) oil on canvas, purchased 1911
Akseli Gallen-Kallela, “Boy with a Crow” (1884) oil on canvas, purchased 1911

Akseli Gallen-Kallela was a Finnish painter who became known for his illustrations of the Kalevala, a collection of ancient Finnish folk poems. From the start, artists found inspiration in the mythic characters and stories in the Kalevala. Most notable among these artists was Gallen-Kallela. In 1879, he began his art education by attending drawing classes at the Finnish Art Society. At the age of 19, in 1884, Gallen-Kallela moved to Paris to study at the Académie Julian. It was the same year that he painted Boy with a Crow, a remarkable painting of a young boy dressed in rags with no shoes, standing quietly listening to the message of the crow. In Finnish mythology ravens were popular spirit guides for the shamans, and many times when a shaman traveled into the underworld they would take the form of a bird. Ravens, and black animals in general, were often connected to the underworld and people feared them the same way they feared and respected their ancestors.

Helene Schjerfbeck, “The Convalescent” (1888) oil on canvas, purchased 1888
Helene Schjerfbeck, “The Convalescent” (1888) oil on canvas, purchased 1888

One of Finland's most cherished modernist painters, Helene Schjerfbeck, is widely known for her realist works and self-portraits. One of her earliest works, and one of her most famous, is The Convalescent (1888), a charming portrait of a would-be resting child. This was painted in St. Ives in Cornwall, England. Schjerfbeck visited the region twice in the late 1880s. The painting was included in the Paris Salon the year of its completion under the title First Greener. A sick child was a common subject in art at the time, but Schjerfbeck’s painting is also about the return to vitality. The brushwork is lively and the treatment of light is reminiscent of impressionism. The painting was praised in Paris. The reception back home was initially controversial – the picture was considered excessively realistic. However, the Finnish Art Society decided to purchase it, and soon after its completion the painting was acceded to the Ateneum’s collection.

Torsten Wasastjerna, “French Women Ironing” (1889) oil on canvas, purchased 1925
Torsten Wasastjerna, “French Women Ironing” (1889) oil on canvas, purchased 1925

Another interesting Finnish painter whose work hangs at the museum is Torsten Gideon Wasastjerna. During the first part of his career he painted in an impressionistic style, and later painted fantasy subjects and symbolist paintings. He is another artist who began by studying at the Finnish Art Society, then went on to study at the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts. From there he moved to Paris, where he painted French Women Ironing (1889) when he was just 26. A lovely example of his impressionistic period, the painting has a beautiful play of light.  

Eemil Halonen, “Girl” (1908) wood, purchased in 1909
Eemil Halonen, “Girl” (1908) wood, purchased in 1909 

When you first enter the Ateneum Art Museum there is a large room where the entire floor is filled with sculptural pieces. There were many excellent works, but I was particularly drawn to Girl (1908) by Eemil Halonen, who is considered one of Finland’s finest sculptors. He, too, studied at the Finnish Art School, then travelled to study in Russia, France and Italy. The strength of his work comes from the fact that he sculpted images of common people, which he often made from Finnish wood and stone.

Ilya Repin, “Double Portrait of Natalia Nordmann and Ilya Repin” (1903) oil on canvas, bequest 1920
Ilya Repin, “Double Portrait of Natalia Nordmann and Ilya Repin” (1903) oil on canvas, bequest 1920

The famous Russian artist Ilya Repin lived in Finland during the last part of his life. In 1919, he donated his collection of artworks by Russian artists and his own works to the Finnish National Gallery in Helsinki, and in 1920 honorary celebrations of Repin were held by artistic circles in Finland. Among the paintings he donated was this lovely double portrait of himself and his companion Natalia Nordmann at their home in Finland. In 1900, when he met Nordmann he was immediately captivated by her, and soon after they were living together in her home, Penaty (the Penates), in Kuokkala, Finland. The couple invited notable artists from Russia every Wednesday as their new home was only an hour by train from St Petersburg. The Wednesday gatherings enabled Repin to put together an "album" of paintings for Nordmann. He created portraits of the guests, each of which was labelled with their name, their profession, and occasionally their autograph. Nordmann's hospitality was well-known, and visitors included the writers Maxim Gorky and Aleksandr Kuprin, artists Vasily Polenov, Isaak Brodsky and Nicolai Fechin, as well as poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, philosopher Vasily Rozanov and scientist Vladimir Bekhterev. This album was displayed at the World Exhibition in Italy in 1911. Repin was to describe Nordmann as the "love of his life.” The Penates became an important artistic and literary gathering place in the early 20th century.

Entrance to the museum, sketch of Albert Edelfelt’s painting “Conveying the Child’s Coffin” (1879)
Entrance to the museum, sketch of Albert Edelfelt’s painting “Conveying the Child’s Coffin” (1879)

I came to Ateneum with a prepared list of paintings I was hoping to find, but instead discovered many new and wonderful works. Overall, I was struck by the introspective and quiet strength I saw in so many of these artworks. An unexpected and inspiring surprise.

About the Author
​Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, lecturer and published writer, who specializes in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is the editor of

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