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Ellen Thesleff


The early work of Ellen Thesleff (1869–1954), who was to enjoy a long and impressive career as an artist, was imbued with a muted, even ascetic, brand of Symbolism. However, her approach changed in the early 20th century, when her highly personal form of colour Expressionism put her in the front rank of the international avant-garde. Thesleff declared the attainment of absolute beauty to be the goal of her life and art.

Thesleff’s father was an amateur painter and became his daughter’s first instructor and supporter in her drive to become an artist. From 1885 to 1887 Thesleff was first a pupil of Adolf von Becker, then began to study at the Finnish Art Society drawing school. However, the school’s academic methods left her dissatisfied and after two years she left. After studying at Gunnar Berndtson’s private academy from 1888 to 1891 she went to Paris and became a student at the Académie Colarossi.

Links with the works of Eugène Carrière have been identified in Thesleff’s Symbolist output, but the artist herself underlined the important role played by Édouard Manet’s ‘black’ period in pointing out her way as an artist at the end of the 19th century. Another important inspiration, as well as pastime, was music. Thesleff’s entire working life was spent in Finland, France and Italy. Many of her landscapes were painted at Murole, the family estate in Ruovesi. In 1894 Thesleff visited Florence for the first time, and returned several times later. In 1907 she met there the English theatre reformer Gordon Craig, who inspired her to start producing woodcuts.

In the new century Thesleff took part in exhibitions in Helsinki, Paris, Moscow, St Petersburg, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Oslo, Florence and Milan. In 1949 she had works in a large-scale exhibition of Nordic art in Copenhagen, where her later works were much praised.