Juho Rissanen and the St.Petersburg Academy of Arts

To the question of the Russian-Finnish relationships
in the second part of the 19th century
Among Finnish artists, whose education in a certain degree was firmly related to the St.Petersburg Academy of Arts, Juho Rissanen occupies a special place. Although he studied only for a short period at the studio of Ilya Repin (December 1897 — May 1898), his studying at the Academy became an essential stage in his formation and development as a master, and at the same time became one of the most exciting phenomena in the history of Russian-Finnish cultural relations.
As an artist and person, Juho Rissanen is of great interest for us. His life was inspiring and eventful, and the story about it could be an excellent basis for a screenplay of a film about a remarkable person possessed with a great creative idea, independent and following their way. Being recognised by art critics and art lovers, his paintings also tell us about his life.
So, it might be unfair to find out in the research works of our art-critics, devoted to the Golden Age of the Finnish Art that among the other names of the Finnish artists the name of Juho Rissanen is mentioned like the name of an ordinary artist, separated from others by commas. Unfortunately, the creative works of Juho Rissanen didn’t attract the attention of the art experts in our country. The only distinguishing feature in his works, identified by everybody, is ordinary people that he depicted in his paintings. But not only Rissanen portrayed the life around him. Finnish peasants and workers became the heroes of the pictures of Albert Edelfelt, Eero Jarnefelt and even Hugo Simberg, whose children carrying an angel in his eponymous painting, are the children of the ordinary workers. Appeal to people and its epic and the history of the homeland is one of the most distinctive features of the art of the II half of the XIX century — the period of growth of national awareness and the flourishing of the culture and the art of Finland. The folk theme that passes through all the creative works of Juho Rissanen, undergoing its evolution. Throughout his creative life, the artist searched the best and the brightest means to express his ideas. Finnish people are considered as an integral part of his personality because Rissanen came from the grassroots, precisely from the poorest social groups. His biography had a high impact on his creativity. In the interpretation of the images of the ordinary people, Rissanen was far from the prettiness and idealism of the artists working in line with the ideas of national-romanticism. When depicting people’s characters, he was more impartial than other Finnish artists.
Juho Rissanen was born in 1873 in Kuopio, in a family of a worker and maid. He lost his father, whose main vice was drinking, very early. When Juho’s father was returning home after one more feast, he’d frozen up and died. Rissanen’s triptych «Memories of childhood» (Art Museum, Budapest), seems to revive the shocking details of this moment of his life.
After having lost his father, he got to know very early with poverty and had to earn a living when he was very young. His first steps in his artistic education associated with the painting studio of the artist Victor Berg, where Rissanen not only studied but lived to be an apprentice of his teacher. At the same time, young Rissanen learned and finished the Sunday Artisan School in Kuopio (1888-1890) and the Elementary School of Crafts (1890 — 1892). In 1892-1893 he went on a trip to the Central and South Western Finland in search of work he received in Tampere in the studio of R.Ekberg. In 1894, he won the qualification of a professional home painter. In 1895 he arrived in Helsinki where he worked at the Hasselgren and Loof’s Studio and entered the Central School of Applied Arts (High School of Handicrafts) which allowed him to specialise as a decorator. In 1896, Rissanen decided to begin studying art on a regular basis. He entered the Drawing School of the Finnish Art Society where he learned art from the famous artist Helen Schierfbeck. Here he got to know the creative works of the famous old masters. The paintings of Hans Holbein that also had a considerable impact on Helen Schierfbeck have a particular influence on Juho Rissanen.
But Rissanen was not destined to study at the Art School in Helsinki. After a few months, he had been expelled from the school because » he wasn’t able to comply with the normal order and the traditions of the school.»
The artist had to think about the way he had to do for a living, where he could get the means for his following studying and whom he could ask for his financial backup. He found a job; he also got somebody who funded his education. As an illustrator, Rissanen worked for some periodicals such as a comic magazine and a Christian Yearbook for Children. This financial support he gained in Helsinki, from the industrialist Antti Poihoonen. Arranging thus, his business, Rissanen continued studies at the Drawing School of the Finnish Art Society, but in Turku. He began his studies at the studio of the nationally known artist Victor Westerholm.
However, that was not enough for an ambitious young man. He realised that his creative potential needed a way out that’s why he went to St.Petersburg, the capital of the vast Russian Empire. Back then, paradoxically as it may sound now, for many Finns, St.Petersburg was a kind of a window to Europe. At that time, about 24000 of the Finns lived in the Russian capital. People of different professions and social status, from stove makers to honoured maids of her Imperial Majesty, formed the Finnish community at that time.
Naturally enough, the question of finding the funds for education had become the question of primary importance for Rissanen. In October-November Rissanen was coming to St.Petersburg to know about the conditions of admissions to the Academy of Arts. He took a bank loan. One of his warrantors became J.F.G. Aminoff, the governor of the province of Kuopio. The other his sponsors were Ferdinand von Wright, the famous artist and consul Birger Hallman.
As it has been mentioned, the stay in St.Petersburg and the studying at the Academy of Arts, was for Rissanen an essential stage of his creative development. Generally speaking, he didn’t have a regular art education, taking courses at different educational institutions and from various artists from time to time. Those Finnish artists who taught him (Helen Schierfbeck, Victor Westerholm and Albert Gebhardt) or whose creative works had an impact on him (Albert Edelfelt) studied in Paris and Dusseldorf. Even though the curriculum of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts undergone some changes and the atmosphere of the Academy had become more democratic, this educational institution remained conservative. The Academy was considered as a stronghold of the state police in culture and art education. Developing the subjects of the current educational tasks or diploma works, the artists paid the greater attention to contemporary life. They also changed their attitude in the interpretation of historical subjects, preferring the themes from modern life to those from ancient history or mythology. However, the general position of the Academy’s administration to the issues of the art remained the same, and the Academy was an institution with the strict order end elaborate rules and regulations. The students were given serious vocational training, and for the sake of the stringent requirements, the students had to suppress their individuality.
Taking the advice about his further studying from Albert Edelfelt, Rissanen headed to St.Petersburg. He had no definite idea of where to go. Besides St. Petersburg, Rissanen had the idea to go to Stockholm. Nevertheless, Eledfelt, a true patriot of Finland didn’t advise him to go anywhere because, in his opinion, Finland has its art school. He expressed the idea that it might be better for Rissanen to continue his education at the School of the Finnish Art Society. However, Rissanen felt not comfortable to go back there as it had already been expelled from there. The reason for his exclusion seemed to Edelfelt insignificant: Rissanen fell asleep at the class of Helen Schierfbeck. He promised to write to Victor Westerholm, who lived in Turku at the time and ask him to take Rissanen to the local art school. He gladly spent a short time of his studies, but still, he was remembering Helen Schjerfbeck and wanted to return to her studio. Besides that, the friends of Rissanen convinced him that yet, he needs to study abroad. He was provided with necessary funds.
Before his trip to St. Petersburg Rissanen visited Albert Edelfelt and told him that hi did decide to go to Russia to study from Ilya Repin. Mildly rebuking the young artist, maestro said to him that he is as stubborn as all the residents of the province of Savo. Nevertheless, he wrote a letter of recommendation to Repin.
Despite having the lack of arts education, Rissanen came to the Academy as a person with developed views on life and opinions on aesthetic. The two letters of Juho Rissanen to Ferdinand von Wright have come to our days. One of them is dated November 1897. In this letter, the artist describes his impressions from his arrival to St.Petersburg, from St.Petersburg itself, and from the settling in the new place and dealing with his household problems. Arriving by train to the Finland Station, the future student of the Academy of Arts went to look for housing. He rented a room in the apartment near the Academy of Arts where lived a Polish family. It was located at the 14th line, house 57, apartment 3. Generally, he liked his housing, although the room was quite cold. After he had arranged his business with his accommodation, he went to see the city. Nevsky Prospect made a great impression on him: the artist was taken by its fantastic architecture and amazing public strolling through the street. The young ladies neatly and richly dressed drew the attention of the young traveller. After the domestic problems have been solved, the other issues were needed to be tackled. The first one was the organisation of his studying at the Academy of Art. Rissanen had a letter of recommendation from the Finnish Art Society, which he was going to show Repin himself. In this case, Albert Edelfelt had played the vital role.
By that time, this brilliant Finnish painter, who was like a role model for his compatriots, had managed to establish himself in St.Petersburg and to make good connections in the business and art worlds. The young talented artist was introduced to Sergey Diaghilev who showed great interest in Scandinavian art. Later on, a few exhibitions of the Finnish and Russian artists were organised with his assistance. Diaghilev liked the works of the young artist. The next goal that Rissanen was going to achieve was the acquaintance with Ilya Repin. The master praised the originality of the paintings of Rissanen, his shining talent and agreed to take Rissanen to his studio as a senior student. However, Repin insisted on doing the assignments that did all the students. It was anatomical drawings as well as drawing and painting from a live model. One more formality Juho Rissanen needed to do: to obtain the permission for his education from the vice-president of the Academy of Arts, count I.I. Tolstoy. There were no particular problems with this. Tolstoy was favourable to the young Finn, completely trusting the opinion of I.E.Repin.
The second letter of Rissanen to Ferdinand von Wright was written in December 1897. In this letter, he describes the beginning of his education at Repin’s studio. As it’s clear from the general tone of the message the young artist was excited about all the new things that he had got to know at the Academy. The Academy’s curriculum was traditional.
Students had to pay their attention to the painting of nude and dressed models. That day Ilya Repin was supervising his students and giving them advice while they were working. The master liked the work of Rissanen. After the painting of this work, the students began to paint a dressed model. It was a female model in a beautiful blue dress. In the opinion of Rissanen, Repin was a very cheerful and friendly person, and what was the most appealing to the young Finnish artist, was that Repin spoke Finnish a little. It was significant for the young Finn because he didn’t know the Russian language. Repin advised him to contact Anna Lipponen, the Finnish student who studied at the freshman classes of the Academy and who spoke Russian. Repin liked how Rissanen worked. For Rissanen, this fact was crucial because of the appraisal of such a great master as Repin was motivated him to be a more hardworking person.
While living in St.Petersburg, Rissanen perfected his skills not only in the Academy of Arts. He often visited the Hermitage Museum where he studied the creative works of the old masters and, most importantly, he bought the reproductions from the pictures created by classics. This collection of copies, which was initiated in the Northern capital, then grew up to very very large size and the number of postcards and photos had reached several thousand. Here, in our city, at the Academy of Arts and the Hermitage Museum, the ticket to a long creative life was given to Rissanen, and from here, having acquired the knowledge in the art, he came back to Finland and then went to Europe and America.
Rissanen studied diligently, and soon he was awarded the monthly prize of 25 rubles from the Imperial Mutual Aid Fund for the Finnish students. Little by little, he started studying the Russian language with the help of Marti Berg, who worked at the State Secretariat of the Finnish Ministry, and Lady Ursin. Later on, he changed his apartment, moving from the 14th line to Italianskaya street, wherein the house №15 he rented the apartment № three together with a Finnish law student.
In St.Petersburg, Rissanen saw a lot of new things. His life was vibrant and exciting. He tried to know as much as possible. The Academy students had special cards, which gave them free access to museums and theatres. Those cards looked like the student cards that are used by students nowadays. There was a curious incident which had happened to the young artist. Walking along the Nevsky Prospekt and approaching Catherine’s Garden, Rissanen had seen an Orthodox priest. He was captivated by the unusual appearance of the father and followed him for a long time. The priest drew his attention to Rissanen and then after some time turned to the nearest policeman. The policeman asked the surprised Finn to show his documents. After examination of his student card signed by the Grande Prince and, I.E. Repin, and also learned what the matter was, he took off his cap and bowed to Rissanen.
There was another case. Seeing the City Duma Tower on Nevsky Prospect, Rissanen decided to climb on it at all costs to overlook the view of the city. He was immediately brought in to the police station. With great difficulty, Rissanen explained that he wanted to see how large St.Petersburg was. The sincere and honest look of the young Finn took the policemen by surprise. Then they accompanied him when he was heading to the Duma Tower. Not wasting a single minute, Rissanen made many sketches of Neva banks. Many of his drawings were used for painting the finished artworks.
Even though Rissanen liked studying at the Academy, he didn’t remain in St.Petersburg to complete his academic course. During the autumn and winter of 1897-1898, he was sick a lot. Although outwardly he looked healthy physically, the difficult period of his childhood when he was starving and working a lot, affected him. Doctors advised him to go home to Finland because there is a healthier climate. Repin regretted Rissanen’s departure because he wished to have more such talented and diligent students like this young Finn.
Most importantly, what Rissanen learned from his stay in Russia were progressive democratic ideas, in particular, the concepts of Leo Tolstoy about people’s education. In addition to this, the personal contact with people who gave him a creative charge played an essential part in his life. The life in Russia inspired Rissanen to go further and to raise his art to a global level. To have his creative art reached the world level, Rissanen thought that only the development of his career as a career of a Finnish artist would lead him to the top level of the world art. In his opinion, he needed to be focused on the Finnish national traditions in his art.
In his future life, Rissanen had to travel a lot moving from place to place. During these travels, he always tried to learn, absorb something new and look for the only right form for the expression of his ideas.
Using the examples of Renaissance masters, he studied the technique of fresco painting In Italy. He admired the measure of generalisation, the sublime imagery, precision of lines and clarity and completeness of characters, in other words, those features which were characteristic for the classic of Renaissance art.
In France, where he lived in the second half of the 1920s — first half of 1930s, he made good connections with Maurice Denis and the artists of his circle. He paid a great deal of attention to the symbolism of Deni’s paintings and liked his broad brushstrokes. At the same time, he was far from avant-garde movements which were characteristic of fine art in the first half of the 20th century (cubism, expressionism and other modernist movements).
The central theme of his art — is the life of an ordinary person. As a descendant of the family of commons, he loved ordinary people. In his pictures, he tried to show the diversity of their lives, depicting particular episodes of their everyday life focusing on the life of specific characters. At the same time, his art is far from being straightforward and educational. The artist didn’t tend to point at somebody who, in his opinion was responsible for the current social problems. There are quite a few lyrical pictures that he created in the different periods of his life, such as «A Girl», «An Old Woman», «A Girl Sitting by the Sea», «A Man warming his foot on the hearth», «Watch Trade». «A Fortune Teller», «A Folk Healer». At the same time, the artist could create the artworks with the epic atmosphere: » A woman sifting the seeds», «A woman weaving a ribbon», the frescos «Blacksmiths», «Builders». The path to people’s the future well-being, Rissanen saw in the developing of their national culture. The foundation of any national culture is the language of its people. In those days, the vast majority of intellectuals who lived in Finland spoke and wrote mostly in Swedish. Most of them were people of high society. Rissanen never wanted to study this language. In particular, letters to Albert Edelfelt, Rissanen wrote only in Finnish, and Edelfelt had to answer him also in Finnish, though he spoke fluently in Swedish and his family had Swedish aristocratic roots.

Although the artist was close to ordinary people, whose problems everyday life he took to his heart, his ideas about the improvement of people’s wealth weren’t destructive. The fate of his nation, its culture and prospects were the things the artist was thinking throughout his life. Nevertheless, he didn’t consider a revolution as the only option for changing the situation for the better in his country. What’s more, a kind of status quo or equilibrium in society were the factors which, in his opinion, could be a better choice for people. That’s why he couldn’t understand why, in 1918, when Finland gained its independence, the civil war started. Indeed, the strength and power of the Finnish people, as he believed, in its unity, solid cultural basis and the harmony of all classes of society.
When travelling around the world, the artist never forgot about his homeland. He lived a long and very fascinating life. Finnish people are grateful to him. After his death in 1950, his ashes were transported from Miami. It was the place remote from Finland. Then his remains were reburied in Kuopio.
For us, his creative experience is exciting and valuable in many ways. On the one hand, his original approach in depicting the life of ordinary people attracted the attention of public and art critics. On the other hand, the artist created an epic image of an average man, and, in this case, the democratic ideas of Russian intellectuals and especially Lev Tolstoy were influential for him. Importantly, Russian and Finnish people are neighbours, we have a lot in common in our history. Nevertheless, whatever these moments are, good or bad, we should always aim for mutual understanding and cooperation.
1. Безрукова М., «Искусство Финляндии. Основные этапы становления национальной художественной школы», М., Изобразительное искусство, 1986.
2 Безрукова М., «Скандинавская и финская живопись из музеев СССР», в журнале «Юный художник», 1990, № 10.
3. Безрукова-Долматовская М., «С.П.Дягилев и Финляндия. К 100-летию выставки русских и финляндских художников». В сборнике «Проблемы развития зарубежного искусства». Материалы XI научной конференции в память профессора М.В.Доброклонского СПб, 1998.
4. Лисовский В.Г. «Академия художеств», Санкт-Петербург, 1997
5. «Мир искусства. К столетию выставки русских и финляндских художников 1898 года».” Palace editions”, 1898.
6. Суворова Л. «Финские академисты». В сборнике «Петербургские чтения 1998-1999», с. 472-475. СПб, 1999.
7. Stocker Clara “Paitaseta – Juho Rissanen elama”
8. Valkonen, Markku.Kultakausi, Porvoo, 1995
9. Vanderdoe, Kirk. “Northern Light. Nordic art at the turn of the century”. Yale University Press, New Haven, London.
8. Juho Rissanen ja suomalainen kansa. Juho Rissanen and the Finnish people.
Kuopion taidesmuseo 10.12.1997 – 8.3.1998
Atheneum 2.10 – 27-12.1998