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R.W. Ekman: Emperor Alexander II Opening the 1863 Diet in the Imperial Palace, 1863–65

 

Ekman’s painting is a rarity in the history of Finnish art. The exceptionally large canvas depicts an extraordinary event, the opening of the Diet on 18 September 1863 in the Imperial Palace in Helsinki, the current Presidential Palace. It had been more than 54 years since the Diet had previously been convened in Finland, in Porvoo in 1809. It was the first Diet in the period of autonomy in Finland, and marked the annexation of the country to Russia as a Grand Duchy. The opening ceremony held in 1863 in the Ballroom (currently the Hall of Mirrors) was the second of its kind. Subsequently, Diets convened at the Emperor’s summons every 3–5 years.

Many of the representatives of the Estates convened for the Diet are depicted in the painting. It is a rare document and a gallery of fairly accurate portraits of the statesmen and other influential figures of the time.

The Senate commissioned the painting from Ekman at a price of 3000 roubles. The go-between was Senator Johan Vilhelm Snellman. Correspondence shows that everyone wishing to be part of the picture was required to deliver to Ekman a photograph of him/herself, in addition to which the artist received a photograph of the hall itself and compensation for travelling to attend the Diet. The use of photographs demonstrates the documentary nature of the painting. Ekman has not aimed for an overall painterly effect, but has instead sought to recognisably portray all of the participants, down to their decorations and minute details of their dress.

A lithograph was later made on the basis of the painting, with a legend identifying the male representatives of the Diet, whereas most of the women witnessing the event on the balcony remain unidentified. Some of them have been successfully identified through comparative study of photographs and dresses. For instance, the woman standing in the balcony on the right in a violet dress is Aurora Karamzin.

One interesting detail is the Finnish coat of arms, which is intentionally shown partly obscured by the chandelier, yet above the Russian coat of arms on the throne canopy.

The painting belongs to the collections of Finnish nobility. It hangs permanently in the House of Nobility in Helsinki.