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Albert Edelfelt, the Finnish Master

Albert Edelfelt - Leikkiviä poikia rannalla
Boys Playing on the Shore, 1884

Born on July 21, 1854 in Southern Finland, Albert Edelfelt was a successful Finnish Realist painter. While studying art in Helsinki in his late teens, Edelfelt became frustrated by the type of instruction in Finland at that time and, after a brief stint in Antwerp he moved to Paris studying under Gérôme. Edelfelt's work is comprised of both portraiture and landscape, where he often painted en plein air and equally adept in both oils and watercolour. His popularity rose in his lifetime during his time in Paris and attracted many admirers, including Van Gogh. Edelfelt's style is warm and fresh, almost like Sorolla yet with a deep respect for his own culture and people despite living in Paris for so many years. His realism is inviting and mindful, with an innate sense of colour for all of his compositions and portraits.

In Boys Playing on the Shore above, Edelfelt brings us back to childhood with a remarkably muted palette. Despite the sunshine there are no bright colours anywhere here besides white and yellow, yet the mood is fun and happy. I love this composition and how the body language of the boys help direct our eyes to what is happening. Edelfelt uses the boy on the far left, with his jeans rolled up above his knees, leaning forward on his right leg and leading our eye toward the two boys playing with the toy sailboats in the water. The boy perched on the rock outstretches his arm to push the boat with a long stick while the other next to him waits his turn. All three figures, by having a specific action, help determine the composition by the use of their arms and legs and the direction their heads are faced. The brushwork here is swift and confident, especially in the undulations of the brownish water and the rocks. Edelfelt's brilliance here is that the focal point is not the toy boat in the water but the boys themselves, enjoying a summer afternoon without a care...and keeping us captivated.

Albert Edelfelt - Lastentarha (1885)
In the Nursery, 1885

Love the tenderness and realness of this painting. Edelfelt makes a human maternal moment into universal understanding. Note the way he darkens the room with only a soft light spilling into the foreground with the baby and nanny. Those red drapes break the monotony of the room. Again look at the use of hands to narrate the story. The baby explores the texture and design of the carpet with his hands while the woman off to the right sits with palms up, ready to see if the baby will crawl toward her, while the nanny sits with hand on hip, both in adoration and hoping the child doesn't hurt himself. The luxurious textures here, with alternating warm and cool colours side by side, contrast with what we would consider more child-friendly today in our reverence for children, yet in Edelfelt's world the adult remains in charge, and a child's development is not based on the amount of toys in a room but the encouragement of their innate curiousity in the adult's environment.

Playing the Piano, 1884

A motif that seems to occur among artists from this period, here Edefelt uses hands to emphasize the discipline and passion behind music, as well as love between teacher and pupil. Note how he uses his fingers along the sheet music to guide the student along while his other hand around her shoulder for encouragment. Their proximity to each other in such a small room, with light streaming through a small window, seems to heighten the sexual tension. Note how Edelfelt does not even bother to attempt depicting musical notes on the sheet, reinforcing the idea of attraction between them despite the intent look on their faces in trying to read the music. The upright curve of the candles on either side of the piano may very well be a sexual innuendo itself, one warm and the other cool, shrunken down to suggest the wax melting down and the busy teacher with his female pupils. Note also the difference in tone between the teacher and student, her in light blue that reveals softness and innocence while he is darker, masculine and with distinct edges. The way Edelfelt renders the texture of her dress is beautiful, with delicate shadows and the warmth of the window light warming the whites of her dress. In this chaste world, Edelfelt lets the romance of the scene run with our imagination without any implication.

Lady Writing a Letter (Albert Edelfelt) - Nationalmuseum - 19713
Lady Writing a Letter, 1887

A masterpiece of beauty and texture. Edelfelt's simplicity is his greatest strength in that it allows him the freedom to explore minute details within that simplicity, details we often take for granted until we see them up close. The warmth of the sunlight coming through the window graces her face and skin. Interestingly, Edelfelt hardly blends any of his brushstrokes here, including her face and neck which appear soft and smooth. In fact, look closely and we can see the underpainting on her neck and side of her face, which looks like a translucent reflection in the shadow. The vigorous strokes of her blouse are muted pinks and purples with warm highlights...absolutely hypnotic. And the various details around her...the desk, the flower pot, ink well, even the paper itself that she writes on and the translucence of the envelope she holds in her hand, all masterful. This is a painter's painting, and despite Edelfelt's ease of the brush it shows incredible thought and skill.

Below are samples of Edelfelt's watercolors and Academic studies:

Albert Edelfelt - Maisema (c.1889)
Landscape, 1889

Albert Edelfelt - Male Model, Academy Study - A I 215 A - Finnish National Gallery
Male Model, Academy Study ca. 1900's

Albert Edelfelt 1875
Académie d'homme, 1875

Kvinnlig modellstudie, målning av Albert Edelfelt från 1874
Female Nude, Study, 1874

Albert Edelfelt, 1889 - La laitière
La laitière (The Milk Girl), 1889

Edelfelt's grace and mood shine here also. Love that dull grey, smoky sky in the background. The undulating waves seem to move under the boat, Edelfelt's brushwork and colour temperature are spot on. Her face is like a poem. Edelfelt minimizes detail yet still uses texture in her dress that is simplistic and not distracting yet surprisingly intricate up close. I love how he signed the painting on the side of the boat. This painting has such depth and reality despite the solitary character, yet her independent strenght and feminine grace are captivating.

Albert Edelfelt - Women outside the Church at Ruokolahti - Google Art Project
Women Outside the Church at Ruokolahti, 1887

Edelfelt takes another familiar theme, in this case gossip, and draws us into the women seated here. Note how the two women on the far left are thoroughly engaged in the discussion, while the other two women on the right are reluctant and uncomfortable with what they are hearing. In fact, the woman in dark clothes on the far right is not only unimpressed but appears ready to get up and leave. Note how the distinct individually patterned apron clothes of each woman suggests their involvement in the gossip, also, in how the patterns seem to fracture the more to the right of each woman until the far right younger woman carries a bag on her lap, suggesting her possible disbelief in what is being said. The is storytelling and human nature at its very most astute, and Edelfelt reveals not only a keen eye for detail but for psychology as well.

Albert Edelfelt - Louis Pasteur - 1885
Louis Pasteur, 1885

Edelfelt's iconic portrait of the man who invented pasteurization and changed the world. Love the intense gaze of Pasteur to reveal his scientific nature and scrutiny for details. Beautiful light and color contrasts here in the background. A wamr and respectful portrait of a giant in science.

Edelfelt seems to have few weaknesses as a painter, and has no fear in painting seemingly any kind of subject matter. He reminds us not just to depict realistically, but to be real in the process. Scenes can be simple, but people themselves never are. Nature, light and texture are the only tools necessary. The eye of an artist is more than merely depiction but, as Edelfelts demonstrates consistently, finding the truth within each subject and doing this we may find it within ourselves.


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