An Ecstasy of Beauty

Hugo Simberg in the Caucasus

Hugo Simberg (1873–1917) is one of the most beloved Finnish artists. His painting The Wounded Angel (1903), held in the Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, was voted as the nation’s favourite painting in 2006. He is especially known for the figures of Death, devils and angels which populate his art.

Hugo Simberg travelled and studied in London, France and Italy, but he also visited Spain, Morocco, the Caucasus and America. 

In summer 1899 Simberg went to the Caucasus, using Tbilisi as his base. He stayed at the home of his eldest step-brother, railway engineer Carl Simberg, who was engaged in the construction of a railway and bridge network.

At that time Finland and the Caucasus were both part of the Russian empire, although Finland enjoyed elevated status as an autonomous Grand Duchy. Using Tbilisi as his starting point Simberg made excursions, of which the most memorable was a two-week riding and cabriole trip through the mountains of Dagestan.

Simberg was a keen photographer who documented his family, environment and travels. He also used photographs as a basis for his art works. In the Hugo Simberg Archive at the Finnish National Gallery there are almost one thousand of his negatives. Throughout Simberg’s Caucasian adventure his camera was in regular use.

Saddles, a briefcase, a roll of drawings, a colour case and a photographing machine were our luggage. We were ourselves dressed for a ride of 60 versts [about 64 km].

Hugo Simberg in his letter to his family, Tbilisi 26 June 1899. Hugo Simberg Archive. Archive Collections, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki

The rocky mountains, rugged paths and remote villages of the Caucasus made an impact on Simberg. He kept a travel diary (which was later lost) and published a travelogue Memories from a trip on horseback in Dagestan, Caucasus in the Finnish culture magazine Ateneum in 1901.

In his letters and postcards Simberg mostly described impressions rather than facts, so it is impossible to reconstruct his exact routes.

In the Caucasus Simberg lamented his lack of inspiration to paint, but still he drew, painted and photographed. In his work he tried to capture ‘what a word or a colour couldn’t entirely interpret: the loneliness in the mountains, desolation, wilderness, the pure simple nature, that a human being often longs for in the depths of his soul but which so rarely is permitted to receive by any others but by its chosen favourites’. In other words, he wanted to capture his own inner landscape.

Simberg took a picture of his local guide on the riding trip, Bulatsch Muhamedan, of whom he later made a caricature-like drawing. Use the slider below to compare and contrast the two images.