Akseli Gallen-Kallela – Finland’s visionary

Finland * 1865-1931


Akseli Gallen-Kallela is born on 26 April 1865 in Pori, Finland, as Axel Waldemar Gallen, but changes his name in 1907 to a more Finnish-sounding name. His family is Swedish-speaking and his father works as a police chief and lawyer.

At age 11, he is sent to Helsinki to study at the local grammar school, but following his father’s death in 1879, he attends drawing classes at the Finnish Art Society as well as studying privately under Adolf von Becker. In 1884 he moves to Paris to study at the Académie Julian and befriends Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt as well as the Norwegian painter Carl Dörnberger.

He is best known for his illustrations of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, and his work helps shape the visual imagery around Finnish national identity. His work on this project starts during his honeymoon following his marriage to Mary Slöör in 1890. He produces illustrations such as the “Aino Myth” as well as several landscapes.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela-Aino Myth

“Aino Myth” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1891)

In December 1894 he holds a joint exhibition with Edvard Munch in Berlin, Germany, where he also becomes acquainted with Symbolism. But the real turning point in his work comes in March 1895 when he receives a telegram with the sad news that his daughter Impi Marjatta had died from diphtheria. The news heralds a shift in his work from the romantic to a more aggressive style shown in works such as Joukahainen’s Revenge.

Akseli_Gallen-Kallela-Joukahainen's Revenge-1897

“Joukahainen’s revenge” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1897)

He decides to travel more in Europe, developing his artistic skills. In Germany he studies print-making, a skill further developed in London, while in Italy he applies himself to fresco-painting.

His reputation as a leading Finnish artist is consolidated at the Paris World Exhbition of 1900 when he paints the frescoes for the Finnish Pavillion. The project enables him to voice his desire for an independent Finland, free from Russian influence.

He also spends time at Lake Keitele, which he paints several times between 1904-06, and finds inspiration for several other works, such as “Sky” (1904).

Akseli Gallen-Kallela - Sky - 1904

“Sky” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1904)

His travels continue and in 1909 he moves to Nairobi, Kenya, where he paints numerous expressionist oil paintings and collects several African artefacts. But his heart belongs to Finland and he returns to his native country in 1911. Between 1911-13 he designs and builds a house and a studio at Tarvaspää, some 10km northwest of Helsinki. Today, the building functions as the Gallen-Kallela Museum, which opened in 1961.

Between December 1923 and May 1926, he spends time in the USA, where he not only exhibits but also visits the Taos art colony in New Mexico to study indigenous American art.

His work on his “Great Kalevala” starts in 1925 but remains unfinished as upon return from a lecture in Copenhagen, Denmark, Akseli Gallen-Kallela falls ill and dies on 7 March 1931 in Stockholm, Sweden.


Edvard Munch – A mind of his own

Norway * 1863-1944


Edvard Munch is born in Norway’s rural Løten in 1863 and named after his paternal grandfather, archdeacon and Court chaplain. His father Christian is an army physician, and married to the tubercular Laura Cathrine, who is 20 years his junior.  At age one, Edvard moves with his parents and his older sister Sofie to Christiania (renamed Oslo in 1925). His aunt Karen Bjølstad moves in with them as his mother is suffering from advanced consumption. The family celebrates Christmas in December 1868 but a few days after, his mother dies and Karen stays to raise the by-now five children and become a supporter to Edvard’s talents. The family moves again, this time to Grünerløkka, on the wrong side of the Akerselva River, which functions as an important class divider at the time. Edvard’s health remains fragile but he recovers from tubercular attacks. His sister Sofie on the other hand dies in November 1877, an event that would have a profound impact on Edvard.

Edvard Munch-The Sick Child-1886-1925

“The Sick Child” – Edvard Munch – (1886/1925)

He decides to become a painter and enrols in the Royal School of Design. In 1882 he is instructed by radical realist Christian Krohg and his earliest paintings of landscapes and portraits show him as a competent realist and naturalist painting. From the mid-1880s a new romantic trend would come to the fore and expression and mood become increasingly important. Munch’s early works show humble young women from the working classes – much like those produced by his teacher. In addition, he is influenced by Max Klinger, who tackles the subjects of love and death.

In the summer of 1885, Munch visits Antwerp and Paris and upon his return paints “The Sick Child”, now considered a pivotal work in his career. The painting shows a young girl dying of tuberculosis and is experimental in that the subject is shown in a hazy and almost dissolved form, exemplifying Munch’s “I paint not what I see but what I saw”. The painting proves to be a new experience for the conservative Norwegian public and Munch becomes the “enfant terrible” of Norwegian painting. He also meets his first love, a married woman referred to as “Mrs Heiberg” and goes from his religious upbringing to Oslo’s anti-bourgeois bohemia. He admires Hans Jæger, the uncompromising leader of the Christiania Bohemia, as well as Edouard Manet and Emile Zola.

Edvard Munch-The Scream-1893

“The Scream” – Edvard Much (1893)

In 1888, he applies for a scholarship to finish his training in Paris and exhibits more than 60 paintings in his first one-man exhibition, which includes “Music on Karl Johan Street”, a complex work, and a more academic version of “The Sick Child”. As a result, he is rewarded the Norwegian state scholarship for artists three years in a row. Following the death of his father, he explores the works of avant-garde painters Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas and experiments with impressionism, influenced by Claude Monet, producing the highlight of a “Night in St Cloud” in 1890. The psychological treatment of his work is also highlighted in “Melancholy” two years later and in the seminal “The Scream”, of which “Despair”, painted in 1892, is the precursor. The period also heralds Munch’s shift from realism to symbolism.

While Norway is the favourite flavour in Berlin and Munch’s Ibsen-type works generally catch the prevailing mood, Berlin is not ready for him with critics considering the works as “unfinished” and his paintings are taken down five days after the start of the exhibition. But he stays on in Berlin and explores the theme of the femme fatale as well as producing the legendary “The Scream”, a key work of expressionist painting. During this time he also paints important works such as “Starry Night”, “Vampire”, “Death in the Sickroom” and “Madonna”.

Edvard Munch-The Madonna-1894

“Madonna” – Edvard Munch (1894)

In 1895 he returns to Paris and focusses on printmaking and perfects his skills in mezzotint, lithography, intaglio and woodcuts. In the spring 1897 he exhibits at the Salon des Indépendants, who until then had paid little attention to Munch. The exhibition would be the precursor to “The Frieze of Life”, presented as a series some five years later.

In 1898 he meets the attractive and rich Tulla Larsen.  With her he travels to Paris, Berlin and Florence and starts a fateful affair, which ends in the summer of 1900. Munch’s work suffers but by winter, he produces some of his finest landscapes and one year later he paints “The Girls on the Bridge”, a much-cherished work.

In 1902 he is invited to participate at the Berlin Secession and would present his “Frieze of Life” for the first time in full. The 22 paintings are presented in four themes: Seeds of love, Love’s blossom and decay, Life’s anxiety and Death. While success becomes part of his life, so did tragedy as Tulla Larsen continues to haunt his mind. Moreover, alcoholism unravels him and sees him escape to Copenhagen for treatment. He returns to Norway and painting in 1909, providing the decoration for the new festival hall at The Royal Frederik University in Christiania. He completes the monumental works in 1916 after seven years. Meanwhile in 1912 the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, Germany, is a milestone in art history and considered the first comprehensive presentation of expressionism. Munch, with a room of his own, is recognised on a par with Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin.

In 1916 he settles in Ekely, on the outskirts of Christiania. In the last decade of his life, self-portraits provides a key theme and while in 1927 important exhibitions in Germany’s and Norway’s national galleries would confirm his status. However, in 1938 some 80 of his works are removed by the Nazi regime. In 1940 Norway is occupied by German troops and he fears for the safety of his works. A few days after his birthday, he develops pneumonia and as a result, he dies on 23 January 1944.


Barbara Hepworth – Abstract notions

UK * 1903-1975


Barbara Hepworth was born 10 January 1903 in Wakefield, Yorkshire, UK, as the eldest child of Herbert and Gertrude Hepworth. In 1920 she starts at the Leeds School of Art, where Henry Moore is a fellow student. One year later she moves to London to study sculpture at the Royal College of Art and in 1923 she is awarded the diploma.

The following year she travels to Florence, Italy, to study Romanesque and early Renaissance art and architecture and pays a short visit to Rome. In 1925 she spends two months in Siena before marrying sculptor John Skeaping in the Palazza Vecchio, Florence, and remain in the city for three months before moving to Rome. There she learns to carve marble from master carver Giovanni Ardini and visits Carrara.

Barbara Hepworth-Pelagos-1946.jpg

“Pelagos” – Barbara Hepworth (1946)

Due to her husband’s ill-health they return to the UK and after a brief stay in St John’s Wood, they move to the studio at The Mall, Hampstead, where she would stay until 1939. A series of exhibitions with John Skeaping would follow until their separation in 1931 (they would divorce in 1933).  

The year 1932 marks the next stage in her career as she carves her first holedsculpture, Pierced Form (Abstraction), but the piece is destroyed during the Second World War. The painter Ben Nicholson moves in with her and together they visit France, where she meets Picasso and Braque. By 1936 her work gains increasingly worldwide recognition and the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquires her work “Discs in Echelon” (1935).

Barbara Hepworth-bronze-oval form Trezion-1961-63

Pelagos – Barbara Hepworth (1961-63)

They spend time in St Ives and Carbis Bay during the war and in November 1940, works left in the Mall studio are destroyed by bombs. However, the ensuing decades would prove to be productive for the sculptor.  In 1956 she starts to work in sheet metal and bronze international acclaim would develop further and would see her exhibit in Brazil, where she is awarded the major prize, and the USA. At the 7th Tokyo Biennale (1963) she wins the Foreign Minister’s Award.

She continues to exhibit worldwide , including the US (1966) and Japan (1970). Her last exhibition is in March-April 1974 at the Marlborough Gallery, New York.

Barbara Hepworth dies on 20 May 1975 in an accidental fire at Trewyn Studio.

Mary Cassat – Mothers and children

USA * 1845-1926


Born on 22 May 1845 in Allegheny City, near Pittsburgh (PA), USA, Mary Cassat rates as one of the most important 19th century US artists. She was raised in a comfortable upper-middle-class family and her father was a successful stockbroker while her mother was part of a prosperous banking family. From 1851-55 the family lived in France and Germany, enabling Mary to get a flavour of European arts and culture.

In 1860 she began two years of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and five years later, she asked her parents to allow her to continue her artistic training abroad. She moved to Europe to study the works of the great masters of The Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France before settling in Paris, France, in 1874. While she exhibited in the Salon in 1872 and subsequent years, her work was rejected in 1877 and she then devoted herself to creating impressionist works. She exhibited with the Impressionists as the only US artist and her talent was recognised by the likes of Edgar Degas.

Mary Cassat - Sleeping baby 1910

“The Sleeping Baby” – Mary Cassat (1910)

In 1891 there was a shift in her subject matter as she painted increasingly works of mothers and their children, for which she was ultimately known.

In terms of technique, her work combined the light colours and loose brushwork of Impressionism with compositions influenced by European Old Masters as well as Japanese art. Her love of Japanese art was particularly noticeable in paintings such as “The Child’s Bath” (1893).

Mary Cassat - The child's bath - 1893

“The Child’s Bath” – Mary Cassat (1893)

In addition to her artistry as a painter, Mary Cassat was also skilled in colourful wood cuts such as “Morning routine” (1886). Her versatility helped her to establish professional success at a time when very few women were recognised as serious artists.

However, her career as a visual artist came to an end in 1914 due to an eye disease. She died on 14 June 1926 in Mesnil-Théribus, France.

Berthe M P Morisot – The female touch of Impressionism

France * 1841-1895
Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot as born on 14 January 1841 in Bourges near Cher, France. Her father, Edmé Tiburce Morisot was the prefect of the Deparment of Cher while her mother, Marie Joséphine Cornélie Thomas was the great niece of Rococo painter Jean Honoré Fragonard and hence her family can be easily described as affluent.

In 1857 she was introduced to the Louvre museum and one year later, she copied paintings from the museum’s vast collection. Her work at the Louvre enabled her to befriend other artists such as Camille Corot who not only gained fame as a landscape painter of the Barbizon School but was also gifted in figure painting. Under Corot’s influence, Morisot took up painting en plein air. She also studied under Achille Oudinot and even ventured into sculpture with Aimé Millet, although none of her sculpture is known to survive.

Berthe Morisot-The Cradle-1872

The Cradle – Berthe Morisot (1872)

In 1864 she held her first exhibition in the prestigious Salon de Paris, entering two landscape paintings, and took part in the six subsequent exhibitions. Her mature career began in 1872 when she sold 22 of her paintings to art dealer Durand-Ruel. Married to Eugène Manet (brother of Edouard Manet) in 1877, who she had befriended in 1868, she became a member of the Impressionists and one of the leading female painters in the movement, along Marie Bracquemond and Mary Cassatt.

In 1874 she joined the “Rejected”, impressionists which held their own exhibitions such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas and Alfred Sisley. However, Berthe Morisot continued to gain recognition. She stayed in London and the Isle of Wight in 1875 where she studied JMW Turner and painted seascapes. Durand-Ruel included three of her works in the 1883 London exhibition and three years later, she exhibited in America. Her works were also on show in the Salon XX in Brussels, Paris. However, her first solo exhibition was not until 1892, when she displayed 43 works in Paris.


The artist’s daughter and her nanny – Berthe Morisot (1884)

In terms of her works, these are often small-scale. She not only worked in oil, but also water colours, pastel and various drawing media.  From 1880 her brushwork became looser and longer as she started painting on unprimed canvases. Following the death of Manet in 1883, her work moved to a style more comparable with Renoir. Works include “The artist’s daughter and her nanny” (1884) and “In the dining room” (1886).

Morisot died on 2 March 1895 in Paris after contracting pneumonia.

Albrecht Dürer – Poster boy of the German Renaissance

Germany * 1471-1528

Albrecht Dürer was born on 21 May 1471 in Neurenberg, Germany. His father was a goldsmith and young Dürer started his “career” working in his father’s workshop before being apprenticed to painter and engraver Michael Wolgemut between 1486-89. There he was given a wide range of tasks: the designs for stained glass windows, artefacts, carving wooden blocks for book illustrations, enabling him to acquire varied skills. Through copies he became acquainted with Dutch art and the works of the well-known German copper engraver Martin Schongauer.

In 1490 he starts a four-year long odyssey through Europe although the exact route remains unknown. From notes it is known that he visited Haarlem, The Netherlands, and Colmar, France. In the latter town he was keen to get to know Schongauer, but unfortunately he had died shortly before Dürer arrived. In Basel, Switzerland, he was tasked by book printer and publisher Johann Amerbach to produce wood cuts as illustrations for the “Komedies” (“Comedies”) of Terentius. It is understood that at the end of his travels, he met the “Hausbuchmeester” who taught him copper engraving and etching. Both the influence of Schongauer and Hausbuchmeester were clearly present in his early works.

In 1494 he married Agnes Frey, the daughter of a copper engraver, but the marriage remained childless. When the plague hit Neurenberg shortly after, he undertook his first trip to Italy, making plenty of watercolour paintings en-route. He travelled via Augsburg and Innsbruck over the Brenner Pass to Venice, where he met the Bellini brothers who served as inspiration as did Jacopo de Barbari, who made Dürer look deeper into the matter of proportion. He copied, studied and drew from Italian works.


Paumgartner Altar – Albrecht Dürer (1501-04)

Once returned to Nuerenberg he established his own engraving workshop. He developed his skills further and his 1500 self-portrait shows him as a confident young man, conscious of his individuality and ability. Unusual at the time, he signed his work with his initials AD.  At the workshop, he started a modest production of altar pieces for private customers with a preference for painted triptychs such as the Paumgartner Altar (1501-04), followed by his religious piece de resistance, the Heller Altar (1508-09).

In 1505 he undertakes a second trip to Italy to escape another outbreak of the plague, but returns to Neurenberg two years later. There he starts to move in humanist circles and becomes good friends with scientist Willibald Pirckheimer, who brings him work of foreign masters.

Albrecth durer-charlemagne

Emperor Charlemagne – Albrecht Dürer (1509)

Dürer also played a key role in Renaissance portraiture through works such as the portrait of Emperor Charlemagne (1509) and the two portraits of Emperor Maximilian. The same year he becomes a member of Neurenberg’s Great Council, an honour bestowed on eminent citizens.

From 1510 Dürer increasingly devotes his time to engravings and wood cuts with commissions important rulers at the time such as Emperor Maximillian, who tasked him with producing a humanist-allegorical cycle Triumphal Arch and the Large Triumphal Carriage. His body of engravings and wood cuts is considerable – he created around 350 wood cuts and more than 100 copper engravings and dry needle etchings as well as over 1000 drawings and water colours.


Emperor Maximillian’s Large Triumphal Carriage – Albrecht Dürer (1515)

In 1520 he started a journey through The Netherlands where he was received warmly and met key people such as the humanist Erasmus and the painters Lucas van Leyden, Jan Provost and Joachim Patenier. Several painted and engraved portraits followed, including one of his friend Willibald Pirckheimer (1524). Between 1523 and 1528 he wrote treaties “Lessons in measuring” and “Four books about proportion”.

His later work, the “Four Apostles” (1526), consisted of two parts and was finished a few years before his death, signalling his sympathies for the Reformation. Dürer died in his city of birth on 6 April 1528.

Camille Pissarro – From the rural to the urban

St Thomas, West Indies * 1830-1903

Camille Pissarro was born on 10 July 1830 in St Thomas in the West Indies. One of the key impressionists, his early painting career saw him travel with Danish painter Fritz Melbye to Venezuela and after an odyssey, he settled in Paris. There, he studied at the École des Beaux Arts and at the Académie Suisse, where he became acquainted with Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne. In 1855 he attended the Paris World Exhibition where he saw the work of Camille Corot, who would go  on to have a great influence on Pissarro’s work.

Camille Pissarro-the-gardens-of-l-hermitage-pontoise-1867

Gardens of the Hermitage, Pontoise – Camille Pissarro (1867-69)

Like many successful artists of the day, Camille Pissarro exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1859, but two years later his work was rejected. As a result he made his entry in the alternative Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected) in 1863.

During the 1866-69 he lived in Pontoise with his family and from this time date a number of important landscape paintings, including the “Gardens of the Hermitage, Pontoise” (1867-69). He continued this type of painting when he moved to Louveciennes in 1869.

Camille Pissarro-near-sydenham-hill-looking-towards-lower-norwood-1871

Near Sydenham Hill, Looking towards Lower Norwood – Camille Pissarro (1871)

In 1870-71 he stayed in England where he painted “Near Sydenham Hill, Looking towards Lower Norwood”  (1871) and became increasingly influenced by impressionism, a movement in which he would come to play a key role in his life.

Pissarro continued to develop his work by including new subjects. Encouraged by Cézanne, he started to paint still-life in 1972-73 and possibly his “Self-portrait” of 1873 came about in this way.

Camille Pissarro - Picking Peas oil on canvas Museum - 1893

Picking Peas – Camille Pissarro (1893)

Figures continue to feature in his work but are increasingly pushed to the foreground and take a more prominent role in the overall composition of his painting, as can be seen in works such a “Woman hanging the washing” (1887), “The market in Gisons” (1889) and “Picking Peas” (1893).

As can be seen, his last works bring in the new theme of cities in his landscape painting, particularly of Paris, including “The Louvre and the Seine from Pont Neuf ” (1902).

Camille Pissarro-The-louvre-and-the-seine-from-the-pont-neuf-1902

The Louvre and the Seine from Pont Neuf – Camille Pissarro (1902)

Camille Pissarro died on 13 November 1903 in Paris.