Sinebrychoff Art Museum,
Finnish National Gallery
Bulevardi 40, Helsinki
Photos: Kansallisgalleria / Hannu Aaltonen
In period costume
At the time of the French Revolution the rococo style had been rejected as had everything which evoked royal privileges. Soon, however, nostalgia swept through the 19th century, leading to an idealised reinterpretation of times gone by. Rather than commemorate great historic moments, artists sought to enter into the intimacy of their characters. Period décors and costumes added to the charm of the small narrative paintings for which Ernest Meissonier and his followers became famous.
A similar fascination engulfed the Nordic countries where the rococo period had been particularly prominent among the arts and the theatre.
For a time, the reminder of the Swedish past was seen in Finland as a way of opposing russification. The philosophy of the Enlightenment triumphed once more, affirming with Voltaire that “Light came from the North”.
The new barons of industry dreamed of rediscovering the aristocratic way of life of Madame de Pompadour. They wanted to acquire the paintings of Antoine Watteau and his successors, such as Jean-Baptiste Pater. But such works were rare and it was easier to order copies.
At the end of the 19th century painters willingly sought inspiration in the costumed subjects that were held in high esteem by collectors.
The Sinebrychoff Art Museum houses a collection of almost 200 drawings dating back to the mid-18th century. The drawings belonged to Albert Edelfelt who attributed them to Augustin Ehrensvärd.
The drawings feature architectural views but mainly portray people whose dress and movement show an amazing attention to detail. Errors of proportion underline the amateur status of this professional soldier.
When Edelfelt was preparing the pastel for his painting Dalin’s Spring Song, he studied these drawings and made several copies of them.
The lightness of the dry powder and the delicacy of the pastel colours have preserved an elegant reminder of the aristocracy of the 18th century. The quality of Gustaf Lundberg’s pastels had brought him widespread renown during his lifetime; at the end of the 19th century they were particularly sought after by Nordic collectors.
The programme for the murals of the University of Helsinki was one of the most ambitious history painting commissions ever implemented in Finland. The evocation of the academic Aurora Society at the time of the Enlightenment was one of the episodes depicted.
The numerous sketches which have been preserved are evidence of this ultimate moment of projection into Finland’s historic past.
Epitomising the elegance and taste of the mid-18th century, rococo costume has never ceased to arouse admiration as well as an irrepressible desire to appropriate it. This was a subject of concern for Gustaf III who introduced a national costume in Sweden in an effort to prevent the flight of capital abroad for the purchase of these magnificent costumes. Heavily taxed, the sumptuous costumes were particularly rare in Sweden and Finland. Intended to attract attention, they contained a theatrical element which has been particularly appreciated in the theatre and the cinema right up until the present day.
The artist Helena Hietanen has had no hesitation in wearing the wigs she has created following the design of those of Marie Antoinette. Increasingly tall in size, rococo wigs were decorated with bizarre ornaments – such as eggs perched by the artist on the crown.
The costumes of the chorus for the opera The Queen of Spades displayed a similar outrageousness in the Finnish National Opera production of 2005. With their unlikely materials, the robes à paniers (hooped dresses) provided the ultimate return of an ever attractive rococo epoch.