Janis Rozentāls – Eyes on Finland, Heart in Latvia

In the Beginning There Was Love

“Two souls, which were born belonging to one another, have through destiny, no, by the wondrous hand of God, found one another,” wrote Finnish singer Elli Forssell in a letter home to Helsinki from Riga, where she was performing, in 1902. The letter home was overflowing with emotion as Elli described how “our first glances gifted us to one another forever.” Artist Janis Rozentāls had also come to listen to Elli Forssell’s concert. “Did you like the singer?” Janis Rozentāls’ friend asked him after the concert. “Of course I liked her—she is my future wife,” he answered. At the reception after the concert, the artist presented the singer with a bouquet of roses and introduced himself—his name was Janis Rozentāls  (Jan Rosenthal, ‘rose valley’, in German). “Rosenthal and roses!” they say Elli Forssell replied when she met her husband for the first time. His marriage to Elli Forssell in 1903 affected more than Rozentāls’ personal life. It also inspired a strong interest in Finnish art.

When he met Elli, Janis was 36 years old and already a succes-sful artist. He wrote the following about himself in a letter to his future father-in-law Theodor Forssell: “Your entire culture, and especially your art, has been exemplary for me as a Latvian, and as a painter I most respect your great masters such as Gallen, Järnefelt, Halonen, Saarinen and the like. In fact, my secret longing is to become something of the same for Latvians, if only my minor gifts and our external circum-stances provide the possibility.” The suitor had grand beliefs about himself, but time revealed them to be well founded. 1 , 2, 3

Elli and Janis. 1903
Elli and Janis. 1903
Portrait of Elli Rozentāle (Portrait of the Artist’s Wife). 1906
Portrait of Elli Rozentāle
(Portrait of the Artist’s Wife). 1906
Elli ans Janis. 1903.
Elli ans Janis. 1903.

Janis Rozentāls was born in 1866 in Saldus. His father was a blacksmith. Rozentāls’ family could not afford schooling past basic education and, at 15, the young Janis left for Riga in search of a living. The young Janis tried his luck as a waiter, but that career came to a halt when a sugar cake worth a whole three roubles slipped from his hands onto the restaurant floor before making it to the customers. Luckily, the boy, who was interested in drawing, was soon taken on as a painter’s appren-tice. After spending a few years washing paintbrushes, Janis was finally allowed to paint walls and ceilings. Through his hard work, he was accepted to the Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts, where he began his studies in 1888. Rozentāls’ diploma work After Church attracted much attention. 4

Coming from Church (After the Service). 1894
Coming from Church
(After the Service). 1894

In Saint Petersburg, he was a member of a group of Latvian art and music students called Rūķis (Elf). Rūķis was a nationalistic group, whose members included composers Jāzeps Vītols and Emīls Dārziņš, sculptor Teodors Zaļkalns and painter Vilhelms Purvītis. Rozentāls returned to Latvia in 1899. He built a house in his home region of Saldus, but he did not stay for long, as the small city had begun to feel too cramped for the artist. In 1901, Rozentāls relocated to Riga, and already the next year, the fateful concert brought Elli—and Finland—into his life.

The lovers were engaged just a few days after their first meeting. Elli would have wanted to get married right away, and asked her father to send the necessary papers to Riga. She said Janis wished for a small wedding ceremony and wrote to her father, “…I am already Janis’ wife in spirit, and I will do everything as my husband sees best.” However, the ceremony was held at the German Church in Helsinki in March 1903. The invitations were, of course, drawn by the groom himself. In the picture, a man in a black suit steers a boat in which sits a woman in a white dress.  The invitations were based on Rozentāls’ painting Teiksma (Tale) from 1897. These are some of the few of Rozentāls’ works that feature the sea. 5, 6

Bröllopsinbjudan, 1903
Wedding Invitation, 1903
Sägen, 1897
A legend, ca. 1897

It Is Always Summer in Finland

One month after the wedding, Elli wrote to her father: “Be-coming a mother is certainly a great gift—for this reason I am joyful that I might be one. The Rozentāls’ firstborn, a daughter named Laila, was born in the autumn. The new father wrote to his father-in-law Theodor Forssell: “Lieber Papi! (“Dear father“) Ich bringer Dir die frohe Botschaft, dass Dun ein glücklicher Grossvater geworden bisst” (Dear father! I bring you cheerful news, you have become a happy grandfather). In the four-page letter, Janis describes the birth of the little girl from the father’s point of view and admires little Laila’s beauty and intelligence. Soon their second daughter, Irja Austra, was born. The youngest child, a boy named Miķelis (Mikki), was born in 1907. Becoming a father brought the theme of mother and child into Rozentāls’ work, and he painted several paintings of Elli with little Laila. 7,8

Janis and Laila, 1904
Janis and Laila, 1904
Janis Rozentāls’ letter to Theodor Forsell. 1903
Janis Rozentāls’ letter to Theodor Forsell. 1903

In his wife, Rozentāls had found the ideal of beauty, which he wanted to depict in as many different ways as possible. Rozentāls began his artistic career as a realist, but later gained influences from impressionism and symbolism. Elli sometimes appeared in his paintings as Eve, other times as Mary Magdale-ne. Most commonly, however, she appeared as a Madonna. The small children kept their mother up at night and there were problems with servants, but the ideal of beauty still had the energy to model for her husband. Summers in Finland brought variety to the family’s life. The Forssells had a summer home in Nummela, around 50 kilometres from Helsinki, where the Rozentāls spent several summers. 9, 10, 11

In Nummela. 1906
In Nummela. 1906
On the Plank. 1907.
On the Plank. 1907.
Under the Rowan Tree. 1905
Under the Rowan Tree. 1905

Janis painted sunny portraits, which also included Elli’s relatives. For Rozentāls, it was always summer in Finland. When depicting nature, Rozentāls was particularly interested in summer landscapes, although he also sometimes painted bright autumn colours. Rozentāls only rarely painted winter landscapes. 12, 13

Finnish summer, a photograph by Janis Rozentāls. Ca. 1908.
Finnish summer, a photograph by Janis Rozentāls. Ca. 1908.
Finnish summer, a photograph by Janis Rozentāls. Ca. 1908.
Finnish summer, a photograph by Janis Rozentāls. Ca. 1908.

 At the Peaks of Life

The clear lines and almost harshness of Finnish art also in-fluenced Rozentāls as an artist. In an article in the newspaper Vērotājs (Observer) in 1905, Rozentāls praised Gallen-Kalle-la’s frescoes in the Juselius mausoleum in Pori. It is said that Gallen-Kallela’s frescoes—those in the Juselius mausoleum as well as ones in the Finnish pavilion at the world’s fair in Paris—provided inspiration for one of Rozentāls’ most visible works, the paintings on the facade of the Latvian Society House in Riga.  Elli helped her husband on his expeditions through Finnish art by translating articles with him on the subject: Elli translated from Finnish into German and Janis from German into Latvian.

Janis wrote to his Finnish relatives in German—although letters to his father in law often began with the greeting “Lieber Isä!” Inspired by love, but also for practical reasons, Elli learned the Latvian language. As soon as she had met Janis in autumn 1902, she wrote to her father: “But because I still do not understand much of his language (although I am studying it already), we have to use German (which is much too banal for such a sacred feeling as our love).” Elli always spoke Finnish to her children, and the Rozentāls’ home was bilingual. When their daughter Irja was asked decades later what her mother tongue was, she said she didn’t really know: her mother always spoke Finnish to her and her father always spoke Latvian. When Irja was studying nursing in Finland in the 1920s, her brother Miķelis wrote to his sister in Finnish, while her older sister Laila wrote in Latvian.

On the top floor of their apartment on Alberta iela—or Albert Street—there was a bright atelier where Rozentāls painted and also taught art students.  The family also made money from tenants, for whom Elli provided full room and board. The Rozentāls family often had tenants. The most famous of them was one of Latvia’s most famous writers, Rūdolfs Blaumanis. Elli described Blaumanis as an “orderly tenant”. Blaumanis suffered from tuberculosis and, in the end, Elli was able to secure a place for him at the Takaharju sanatorium in Finland. However, the disease had progressed too far and Blaumanis died in Finland in 1908.

The Rozentāls’ home was a meeting place for Riga’s cultural elite, and also functioned as base for Finnish travellers to the Baltics. For Elli, family and relatives were of utmost impor-tance. Letters travelled between Helsinki and Riga at a furious pace, and guests visited often. Important guests included the “Mikkolainen” family, Elli’s dear cousin and friend, writer Maila Talvio, and her husband, linguist Juuse Mikkola.  In addition to letters, parcels were sent both by post and with travellers. Elli received Finnish newspapers, reindeer meat and books by her cousin Maila, while the relatives in Finland were sent handicrafts by Elli and her daughters and once also “pastalas”, traditional Latvian footwear. 14, 15

Portrait of Writer Rūdolfs Blaumanis. 1908
Portrait of Writer Rūdolfs Blaumanis. 1908
Portrait of Maila Talvio. 1904
Portrait of Maila Talvio. 1904

To Finland for Safety

In 1914, World War I broke out. Life in Riga became danger-ous so, in 1915, the Rozentāls family fled to Finland. During World War I, Latvia was trampled heavily as different armies marched back and forth over the country. War was fought in the country for years between the Germans—and with them  Finnish Jägers —the red and white Russian armies and Latvia’s own army, together with the Estonians. The Rozentāls settled in Helsinki. “They had three small children then, and they came here with almost no clothes on their backs,” said Maila Talvio, later recalling her cousin’s family’s escape to Finland. In 1915, Elli wrote from her sister Liisi’s home in Forssa to sculptor Emil Wikström and his wife, saying that the family were now homeless and that Janis was trying to find a place for them to live. They managed to find one in Kulosaari, in a villa where “…water was frozen on the floor in the morning and the windows were covered in frost”. The family was safe, however.

Once he had brought his family to safety, Rozentāls travelled back to Riga to save his paintings. He brought the works to Saint Petersburg, to an exhibition of Latvian art. After the successful exhibition, he was asked to organise a similar one in Moscow. On this trip, Rozentāls fell ill with pneumonia. Rozentāls was raving in the hospital, and his worried friends decided to send a telegraph to Finland. Elli departed on an eventful journey through warring Russia without knowing a word of Russian. Of course, no one knew Finnish or Latvian and she couldn’t use German, the language of the enemies, so Elli wrote the most important words on a piece of paper she kept with her. That was enough for Elli to find her way to Moscow and get Janis back to Finland to recover.

The foreign painter, who was unknown in Finland, had trouble finding work, but Rozentāls continued to paint constantly. In summer 1916, he enthusiastically painted a portrait of writer Aino Kallas, who was spending the summer in Helsinki.

While painting, there was also time for strong emotions, as Aino wrote in her diary in July 1916: “He is my man, he unites strength and delicateness, sensuality and pureness. I do not feel like this is wrong, not for a moment. This cannot be wrong, it is too great, it touches my whole being and my whole life, too fateful, it is not at all a question of my own will.” During a walk on the beach, Rozentāls also told her that he did not need promises and vows, and that one must take what the moment has to offer.

With his erratic feelings, Rozentāls disappointed Kallas, who later wrote to herself in her diary: “…of course you would have wanted to let everything develop to extremes, then heroically decline and live on in triumph. But now it was different: you did not need to decline, only submit to necessity, there is no question of conquering temptation, as there is no temptation.” The cooling of their relationship was probably provoked by the fact that Rozentāls painted a strange face over Kallas’, which some believe belonged to the Rozentāls’ servant. The painting ended up in Rozentāls’ memorial exhibit, where it was purchased and remained in Finland. 16, 18, 19

Elli and Janis on a trip. 1905
Elli and Janis on a trip. 1905, 19
Portrait of Aino Kallas. 1916
Portrait of Aino Kallas. 1916
Villa in Brändö (Kulosaari). 1961
Villa in Brändö (Kulosaari). 1961

In summer 1916, Rozentāls also painted his daughter Laila on the shore in Kulosaari. The same year he also painted the painting Mustikkamaa. The family needed money and Rozentāls had to get works sold. The writer Maila Talvio tried to help Rozentāls in many ways. Rozentāls painted the covers of the Heart of the Christmas magazines Heart of Winter and Sleighbells, among others. The Sleighbells magazine edited By Maila Talvio had previously featured covers by artists such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Erno Järnefelt, Pekka Halonen, Väinö Blomstedt and Venny Soldan-Brofeldt. 20, 21

Mustikkamaa. 1916
Mustikkamaa. 1916
”Sydäntalvi” (The Heart of Winter). 1916
”Sydäntalvi” (The Heart of Winter). 1916

Suddenly It Was All Over

Rozentāls was known for being a gifted portrait painter, and Maila Talvio wanted to get him work in Finland, too. In order for Talvio to demonstrate Janis’ skills, she asked him to paint a portrait of her that she could show to potential customers.  The model wore a black dress and lace collar and sat down to be painted in the Kulosaari villa. “…now I can’t talk to you at all, because I have to get a book ready by Christmas and I have to think about it while you are painting,” Maila Talvio later said she told Rozentāls. The book she was writing at the time was the novel Elämän kasvot (‘the Face of Life’). The painting was completed and served its purpose: Rozentāls received several portrait orders. The portrait of Maila Talvio remained in her possession and stayed in Finland. 22

A81 Rozentals Janis : Maila Talvio 1916
Portrait of Maila Talvio. 1916

The portraits ordered from Rozentāls were never painted, however. The artist died of a heart attack on Boxing Day 1916. Janis Rozentāls was buried on the first day of 1917 in Helsinki. “…the powerful man did not steer the boat through the dark, glistening water, and no bride in white sat on the thwart, like once on a wedding invitation,” said Maila Talvio, describing the funeral procession on New Year’s Day from Kulosaari to the Old Cemetery in Helsinki.

Latvian friends had arrived from Saint Petersburg for the funeral, bringing with them a wreath, which read: “Rest in the cold ground of Finland until we come and bring you home.” In February 1917, a memorial exhibition was held for Rozentāls. “The paintings and colours, the whole summer of Brändö [Kulosaari] lived on the walls—only he was gone,” wrote Aino Kallas, describing the exhibition in her diary. The great boy of Latvia was laid to rest in the ground of his homeland in 1920.Several of Rozentāls’ works, from paintings to small drawings, remained in Finland as a reminder of the artists’ last years in Kulosaari.

Elli continued to live in Finland for four years, until she re-turned to Riga with her children in 1920. There she continued to work with Finnish-Latvian cultural relations. Elli died of heart problems in Riga in 1943. Now, the protagonists of the most famous Finnish-Latvian love story rest together in the Forest Cemetery in Riga. Rozentāls’ legacy lives on in many ways. One example is the Rozentāls society, or  the Finnish-Latvian friendship society, the producer of the exhibition. 23

Elli and Janis, 1905
Elli and Janis, 1905