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.


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.

The journey of a pioneer

Asmundur Sveinsson museum.jpgIn Reykjavik, Iceland, there is an eerily white building with an apparently somewhat far-fetched architecture. It stands in a garden full of large, strange and not-so-strange sculptures and when you walk inside, it is light as the daylight filters through the geometrically-shaped windows and falls on yet more, but smaller sculptures. The building and the sculptures are a reflection of the journey made by its architect and the sculptor: Àsmundur Sveinsson, one of the pioneers of Icelandic sculpture.


Àsmundur Sveinsson – 1893-1982

Àsmundur Sveinsson is born on 20 May 1893 in Kolsstadir, a farm in the remote district of Dalasysla, west Iceland. His early life is spent far away from Reykjavik, not to mention the realm of world art and this would continue until he turns 22 as he works on the farm, tending sheep and the like since childhood.  While literature is held in high regard in this small rural community, there are few visual images. Yet Àsmundur would go on to become a great sculptor…

His real journey begins as he comes to the realisation that he isn’t really cut out to be tending to the family sheep but rather enjoys woodwork and his thoughts turn to making figurative sculptures. His young life yields eight such sculptures although two are now lost. But the remaining ones include Viking “Fridthjófur the Valiant” , a falcon and a swan, all made of wood in 1913-14, as well as the plaster sculpture “The Maid of the Mountains”(1910-15), showing the 19th century independence movement leader, Jón Sigurdsson, handing the flag of freedom to the Maid of the Mountains, i.e. Iceland. However, his early ambitions do not stretch further than being a wood carver – perhaps as he thinks being a sculptor is too high a goal for a boy who isn’t even any good at farming. In his later life, he says: “It occurred to me at an early age that I ought to learn woodcarving, but I did not dare my sights higher. If I had said that I wanted to become a sculptor, I would have been laughed at.” At the time, sculpture is quite new in Iceland and pretty much embodied by Bertil Thorvaldsen, half-Icelandic via his father but living in Denmark, and Einar Jónsson, who spent two decades abroad before settling in Iceland again.

The Kiss by Asmundur Sveinsson

“The Kiss” –  Àsmundur Sveinsson (1922)

So, on 17 October 1915, he leaves Kolsstadir for the first time for Reykjavík to ask for an apprenticeship with the country’s foremost woodcarver, Stefan Eiriksson. However, he is refused and starts as an apprentice with Ríkhardur Jónsson a week later. During the 1915-16 winter he works on woodcarving for eight months and six weeks on modelling as well as attending the Technical College. There he is admitted straight into the second year and studies spatial drawing with Thórarinn B Thorlàksson as well as Icelandic, Danish and mathematics. He studies freehand drawing at the extramural department of the college. In June 1918 he completes his apprenticeship after completing his studies at the Technical College. One year later he qualifies as a master woodcarver with merit following the successful completion of his master piece, an elaborately carved wooden chair.

The farmer’s son of Kolsstadir, emboldened by his newly-attained status and hungry for more knowledge and skill, then takes his next leap and leaves for Denmark, where he enrols at Copenhagen’s Technical College after a visit to the Kunst Museum, the national gallery. He meets up with Einar Jónsson, one of Iceland’s few but well-regarded sculptors of the time, who becomes his mentor and advises him to make the most of Copenhagen’s art collections. At the Glyptotek Ny-Carlsberg he is introduced to the works of great French sculptors Rodin, Maillol and Despiau, who would influence his later output.  Meanwhile, his courses at the college enable him to improve his freehand and perspective drawing skills in preparation for the entrance exam of the Academy.

Helreidinby Asmundur SveinssonHowever, in terms of learning sculpture he finds the Danish college rather unhelpful and in 1920 he decides to move to Stockholm, Sweden, and hoping to take instruction from the well-known Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, enrol at the Academy there. In addition to Milles’ modelling course, the painter Olle Hjortzberg teaches him drawing, Knut Kjellberg anatomy and Johanny Roosval lectures on art history – all excellent teachers, which resulted in a very productive academic year. Milles’ influence can be clearly seen in his work “Northern Lights”, which holds images representative ancient and later Icelandic culture. In the following academic year, he carves a fountain in marble, “Mermaid” (1922) for which he is awarded the Academy’s silver medal. Apart from a brief stay in Germany, where he would visit several museums in Berlin, Dresden and Munich, he would remain in Stockholm until 1926.

Modir Jord by Asmundur Sveinsson

Modir Jord (Mother Earth) –  Àsmundur Sveinsson (1934)

The next leg of his journey takes him to Paris, where he visits the many art galleries and museums and spends a lot of time drawing during the three years that he resides in the city. During this time, he also spends three months travelling in Italy and Greece to visit yet more museums and art galleries. After an 11-year odyssey in Europe he returns to Iceland in 1929.

Àsmundur Sveinsson dies 9 December 1982 in Reykjavik.

To see more works of Àsmundur Sveinsson, check out The Gallery.


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.

Claude Monet – All about the first impression?

France * 1840-1926


Born on 14 November 1840 in Paris as the son of a Parisian craftsman, Claude Oscar Monet moved with his family to Le Havre in 1845. There he was taught to paint “en plein air”  by Boudin and he made the acquaintance with the Barbizon School while by 1859 he met the painter Pisarro of the Academie Suisse.

Following a two-year stint in military service in Algeria, he returned to Le Havre to take up the paint brush with Boudin and Jongkind and paint coastal landscapes for a while before moving to Paris. In the French capital he got to work in the studio of Charles Gleyre where he met Bazille, Renoir and Sisley and carried on his outdoor painting with them.

Claude Monet-1866-The woman in a green dress

“The woman in a green dress – Claude Monet (1865)

During the Paris Salon in 1865 two of paintings received much attention, including “ The mouth of the Seine” (1865) and he received further recognition with “Camille” or “The woman in a green dress” (1866). In 1870 Monet moved to England where he met up with Pisarro and Daubigny and learnt more about English landscape painting. Following a short period in The Netherlands in 1871, he returned to France and worked with like-minded painters in Argenteuil.

In 1872 he painted “Rising sun impression”, the painting that would be part of the first group exhibition of Monet and his friends and become the basis for the art movement called “Impressionism”. However, by 1880 it became apparent that Monet was leaving pure impressionism through heavier and more muted colours as shown in  “Sun flowers” (1881).

Claude Monet-1872-Rising sun impression

“Rising sun impression” – Claude Monet (1872)

In 1883 he moved to Giverny, where he would remain until his last days. Around this time, art dealer Durand-Ruel held annual exhibitions with Monet’s works, including “Cliff walk at Pourville” (1882).

Monet spent time in London again between 1899-1905, where Waterloo Bridge, Charing Cross and the Houses of Parliament would be some of his favourite places to paint.

Claude Monet-1899-Waterlilies

“Water lilies” – Claude Monet (1899)

In 1899 he also started on his best-known series “Waterlilies”, a theme around which he would continue to paint and are arguably his signature works until his death in Giverny on 6 December 1926.