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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Albert Edelfelt

Boys Playing at the Beach, 1884, Albert Edelfelt
(The title rather stretches the definition of "beach.")
Albert Edelfelt Self-portrait, 1887-90
In the seemingly endless task of winnowing out the relatively insignificant artists from those worth a second look, I might easily have skipped over the Finnish painter, Albert Edelfelt. Then I noticed he was born at Porvoo, Finland. That, in itself is rather insignificant as is the town of Porvoo, in fact. That is, except for one thing--I've been there. It's a coastal town about fifty miles east of Helsinki. The town was billed as being quite medieval in its layout, architecture, and location--which is to say, "picturesque" by tourist standards. I spent most of a slightly damp afternoon there, which mostly describes most of the weather in most of Finland. It has a modestly impressive brick and stone city hall, a cobblestone square (which isn't, by the way) and two or three streets of small wooden shops selling Finnish arts and crafts. (I bought some Finnish chocolate.)
Copyright, Jim Lane
Porvoo, Finland, town hall and "medieval square."
Paris in the Snow, 1874, Albert Edelfelt
There was no sign of Albert Edelfelt. Of course, he died in 1905 so that's not surprising. There was no mention of his name nor were any of his paintings on display (also not surprising). Even in Finland, he's not exactly a household name. Mr. Edelfelt was born in Porvoo in 1854; his father was an architect. Both his parents were Swedish speaking Finns. Edelfelt's academic credentials were second to none, beginning with drawing school at the Finnish Academy of Art, then on to Antwerp for a year before ending up at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts for four years studying under Jean-Leon Gerome. He shared a studio with the American painter, Julian Alden Weir, who introduced him to fellow American John Singer Sargent. Edelfelt's Paris in the Snow (left) is from his days as a student with Gerome. As if that weren't enough, Edelfelt spent another year studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he met the poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, gaining some degree of fame as he illustrated one of Runeberg's poems, The Tales of Ensign Stål. Along the way Edelfelt married a baroness and started a family.

Inauguration of the University of Turku in 1640, 1901, Albert Edelfelt
Portrait of Louis Pasteur,
1885, Albert Edelfelt
During the 1880s, Impressionism may have been sweeping southern Europe but Realism still reigned further north and Edelfelt was one of its major proponents, one of the first Finnish artists to gain an international following. Although he trained hoping to be a history painter, and did, indeed, turn out a few such major works, most of his oeuvre consists of portraits and genre. The Finns have been so overrun and put-upon down through history there's not a lot of it they want to celebrate in paint. His only major work along that line was a three-panel panorama involving the Inauguration of the University of Turku in 1640 (above), painted in 1902. He did, however produce a strikingly original version of the encounter between Christ with Mary Magdalene (below, right) around 1890 which stands out in that he took the liberty of painting them with autumn colors by the sea. Jerusalem is not particularly well known for either.

Christ with Mary Magdalene,
1890, Albert Edelfelt
Once he reach the top of his profession in painting, Edelfelt found himself in demand as a portrait artist, painting royalty, scientists, politicians, and the wealthy upper-crust of society. These caught my eye, especially the father-son Portrait of Pietro ja Mario Krohnin (below, left)dating from 1894. His portrait of his sister, Bertha, (below, right) dating from 1884, also struck me as exceptional.

 Portrait of Pietro and Mario Krohnin,
 1894, Albert Edelfelt
Portrait of the Artist's Sister, Bertha
Edelfelt. 1884, Albert Edelfelt.
Quite apart from Edelfelt's skilled portraits though, I've always been one who not only paints modern-day genre once in a while, but one who loves the work of those down through history who have done likewise. To me, they deserve far more respects than they usually receive, if for no other reason than their sheer versatility. Edelfelt is a prime example. Though trained at the highest academic levels as a history painter, he did not shrink from the mundane. His Boys Playing at the Beach (top) seems strikingly modern in style and content even though it was painted 130 years ago. At the other extreme, perhaps the most heartbreaking example of his genre work, and one most artists, then and now, would have been reluctant to touch, is his 1878 Conveying a Child's Coffin; a Child's Funeral (below). The scene is touching without being morose or maudlin. No one, even the grandmother in black, appears to be weeping. Perhaps they're past that. The handling is simple, clean, and clear. The boat is small, the coffin had to be tilted. There is sympathy without sentimentality. For any artist, that's a treacherous line to walk.

Conveying a Child's Coffin; a Child's Funeral, 1878, Albert Edelfelt.


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