By the time he visited the United States in 1923, Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931) was in his late 50s and well-established in the Finnish art world. A younger generation of artists had already started to rebel against the man who they saw as a conservative figurehead.
Some of Gallen-Kallela’s works had been on display in the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. As the works were not returned, the artist travelled to get them back. He found most of them there and subsequently arranged an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in December 1923.
Other reasons for this journey were his quest for a tranquil working environment and fresh inspiration. Gallen-Kallela lived in Chicago and travelled around the United States – visiting Mexico too – painting landscapes and commissioned portraits.
In 1924 a homesick Gallen-Kallela was happy to welcome his wife Mary and their daughter Kirsti to stay with him. The family spent seven months in an artists’ colony in Taos, New Mexico, founded by Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy American patron.
She had bought land in Taos and invited artists to stay there in guest houses. Many artists and writers such as D.H. Lawrence, visited the colony. The Gallen-Kallelas rented one of the guest houses, situated on the border of a Native American reservation.
By the time of their stay in Taos, Mary Dodge Luhan had married a member of the local Pueblo tribe, Tony Luhan, who was her fourth husband; he can be seen in this picture with Gallen-Kallela.
Gallen-Kallela documented mountain landscapes and details of everyday life in vibrant paintings, which reflected the Taos light. He also depicted snowy scenes, familiar from his homeland. As well as landscapes, Gallen-Kallela painted the Taos Pueblo people of the region, and he also studied their art.
Akseli is working with Kalevala in a good mood and singing runes.
Mary Gallen-Kallela in a letter home to Finland
In the United States Gallen-Kallela began work on The Great Kalevala, a comprehensive illustration of Finland’s national epic, with 450 illustrated pages. The legacy of his time in Taos can be seen at least in one sketch for an ornament: in it the artist had put side by side totem figures of the Native Americans and a scarecrow from Kuhmo in eastern Finland.
The Gallen-Kallela family returned to Finland in spring 1926. When Gallen-Kallela died in 1931, his Great Kalevala project was unfinished.