Academic art and new directions

Native customs and traditions

Some artists moved beyond the academy system by applying their training to everyday subjects. Finnish artist Robert Wilhelm Ekman (1808-1873) chose to depict ordinary people rather than subjects from mythology, religion or history. His work explores the lives and history of the Finnish people. Ekman trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and, following trips to France and Italy, he returned to Finland for good in 1845. For the rest of his life, Ekman was the head teacher of the Turku Drawing School, established in 1846.

In the painting above, a group of attentive listeners has gathered around a woman playing the kantele, a traditional plucked string instrument of the dulcimer and zither family. (To hear what a kantele sounds like, listen to this 1956 recording of a Finnish folk melody.) Kreeta Haapasalo was a well-known folk musician who supported her family during the famine years of the 1860s as an itinerant musician, playing the kantele and singing poetry. She was viewed as the personification of the ancient Kalevala traditions, an interpreter who could connect with everything that was truly Finnish. Click here to see more of Ekman’s art on Europeana.

In Lithuania, genre scenes depicting native lifestyles, traditions and customs were the hallmark of the Romantic painters of its capital Vilnius. Kanutas Ruseckas (1800-1860), having studied in Paris and Rome, painted a popular series of works portraying Lithuanian folk customs. One of the best-known of these is Lithuanian Girl with Palm Sunday Fronds, 1844 (also known as “Palm Sunday”).

The Lithuanian Art Museum describes the painting thus, ‘The idealised image of a young and humble ethnic Lithuanian girl, a Catholic, embodies the love of homeland… for some, this painting became the symbol of 19th century Lithuanian fine art.’. See more work by Kanutas Ruseckas on Europeana here.

Like many of the artists we’ve encountered in Faces of Europe, Latvian painter Kārlis Hūns (1830-77) trained, travelled and worked across Europe, in cities such as Riga, St Petersburg and Paris. Hūns painted history, landscape and genre pictures and, in 1872, he became an Academician at St Petersburg’s Imperial Academy of Arts.

Young Gipsy Woman was painted in 1870 after Hūns had successfully taken part in the Paris Salon of that year. Its single figure composition features a slender young gypsy raising her tambourine to catch a falling coin. Young Gipsy Woman portrays a romanticised folk subject in the conventional manner of contemporary academic painting. A few years before his untimely death from tuberculosis, aged forty-five, Hūns joined the Peredvizhniki, a Russian artists’ cooperative of realist painters, formed in protest against the constraints of the Imperial Academy of Arts.

Slovakian artist Jozef Hanula (1863-1944) is best known for his works in the folk genre. The most celebrated of these works date from 1900-1918 after Hanula had returned to Slovakia after studying abroad. His precise depictions of Slovak folk costumes, in pictures such as To Boyfriend, were highly praised by contemporary critics.

The painting shows a young girl in traditional costume, with a prayer book in one hand and a wild flower in the other. The picture was a great success at a 1902 exhibition of Slovak and Moravian artists in Hodonín. Explore more of Hanula’s work online at the Slovak National Gallery.

Despite his travels abroad in Munich and Paris (where he exhibited at the Salon of 1894), Czech painter Joža Uprka (1861-1940) was a true painter of the people. He was well informed about current artistic trends but preferred to record village life in Moravian Slovakia.

Uprka’s Ride of the Kings, 1897, depicts the traditional Moravian spring festival which was originally associated with Pentecost and which dates back to 1808. The Ride itself is performed by a group of young men, preceded and followed by singers and a guard of honour bearing unsheathed swords to protect the "King", a young boy whose face is partially covered, holding a rose in his mouth. The King and his groomsmen are dressed in feminine costumes, while all the other riders wear masculine clothing. Uprka’s busy, panoramic composition captures the noise, excitement and colour of the event. The Ride of the Kings is still held today and has been recognised by UNESCO: click here to watch a short clip of the 1971 festival.