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Still waters

What is paradise? Colin Wiggins and Karen Hosack examine a Nordic vision

Akseli Gallen-Kallela 1865-1931

Akseli Gallen-Kallela was a Finnish painter who studied in Paris. He became interested in the visual representation of Finnish mythology. He later worked in East Africa, painting indigenous inhabitants, wildlife and landscape. His last major project was to create frescoes in the vault of the Helsinki National Museum

After the first exhibition of Impressionist art, held in Paris in 1874, late 19th-century painting was dominated by France. Artistic movements elsewhere were overshadowed by the fame and popularity of Monet, Degas, Cezanne and their successors. But it is wrong to think that nothing of interest was happening beyond this glamorous epicentre. "Lake Keitele", painted in 1904 by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, was acquired by the National Gallery in 1999, joining other recent additions by painters of the period from Denmark and Germany, as the gallery extends its representation of work that has been overlooked, simply because it is not French.

By the end of the century, Paris had become a magnet for aspiring young artists from all over Europe and America, including van Gogh, Whistler and Picasso. Alongside more illustrious names was the young Gallen-Kallela, who arrived from Finland as a 19-year-old in 1884. But imitating developments in France was not enough for him.

"Lake Keitele" depicts an unspoilt landscape in Gallen-Kallela's Finnish homeland. The painting shows a sublime place controlled by the power of nature, rather than by Western civilisation. It is one of a number of canvases he painted of the lake while recovering from malaria. It evokes a mood of isolation. The stillness of the water and the cool colours have a calming effect on the viewer. The silvery tonality of white and grey contrasts with the cloudy blue sky and its reflection in the lake. The artist's brush would have been heavily loaded with oil paint to produce the richly impastoed surfaced.

In common with other Nordic nations, Finland was undergoing a great revival of national consciousness and had a growing independence movement, although it remained a Grand Duchy in the Russian empire until 1917. On his return to his native land, Gallen-Kallela began to document Finnish folk art, vernacular architecture and physiognomic types, and to travel to the sites of its ancient myths.

Just north of Helsinki lies Lake Keitele, part of the setting for the Kalevala epic, an ancient saga that describes a time of mighty gods and warrior-heroes. A natural feature of the lake occurs when the water surface, blown by the wind, forms into bands that appear to mark the recent passage of a boat. This phenomenon, known as VAinAmoinen's Wake, was named after one of the principal figures of the Kalevala, who is said to have journeyed across the lake in a copper vessel. In Gallen-Kallela's painting, these patterns become a ghostly evocation of a lost golden age, as if the great Finnish hero has just passed by, silently gliding across the water.

The painting is not simply a topographical record; it is suggestive of a primordial national soul. Gallen-Kallela was a contemporary of the composer Sibelius, whose similar interest in the ancient legends of his native land culminated in the grandiose symphonic poem Finlandia. This kind of national romanticism was also becoming increasingly influential in other European countries. In Germany, artists such as Caspar David Friedrich were following a similar course. The belief that the history and traditions of a nation contributed to the political identity of its people and could preserve their culture at its purest, proved to be very potent.

"Lake Keitele" is part of a National Gallery touring exhibition called Paradise, which has already visited Bristol and Newcastle. Paradise is the second in a series of exhibitions produced in partnership with the National Gallery, Bristol Museums and Art Gallery and the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle. Each exhibition is shown at all three galleries and consists chiefly of paintings from the National Gallery's collection, allowing them to be enjoyed by people across the country.

This exhibition explores the idea of a personal paradise. As an imaginary place or condition where, ideally, we would all like to be, the idea of paradise is different for everyone. It might be an unspoilt, beautiful place where food is plentiful and the sun always shines, or somewhere peaceful, where people live in harmony with nature and with each other. A discussion about students' own perceptions of paradise would be an effective way of introducing Gallen-Kallela's painting.

Other paintings in the exhibition that search for a personal paradise include Claude Monet's "The Water-Lily Pond", 1899, and Stanley Spencer's "The Lovers" (also known as "The Dustman"), 1934. Monet, like Gallen-Kallela, was also in retreat from Western materialism. From 1899 until his death, Monet spent most of his time painting the Japanese garden which he also created. Spencer's vision of paradise is far busier, set in the streets of his hometown of Cookham. Teachers' notes for these two paintings, in connection with the exhibition, can be found on the National Gallery website.

The illusionary quality of "Lake Keitele" can be appreciated fully on close inspection, zooming in on the website image. The print-on-demand service located in the National Gallery Sainsbury wing shop, offers the opportunity to purchase a high-quality reproduction made directly from the original, using a studio digital camera and a large-format inkjet printer. This technology allows students to explore the texture of the canvas and paint.

Colin Wiggins is deputy head of education and Karen Hosack is head of schools at the National Gallery


LiteracyArt KS2: Ask questions, such as whether students think the place represented in the painting is real or imaginary. Develop critical thinking by asking them to qualify their thoughts: if it is real, where might it be, and why? Is it a place they would like to visit? Why might the artist have painted the picture? The discussion could be used for creative writing on the theme of 'My paradise'.

Literacy KS3: Most cultures have stories that describe blissful places.

Both the Bible and the Koran describe Gardens of Paradise. Greek mythology tells of the Golden Age of innocence. Find out about these and other stories describing ideal places. Find out about Finnish mythology.

Science KS1: Discuss why many different plants and animals do not survive in cold climates. KS2: Lake Keitele is painted using cold colours. Look through different colour filters and note the effect each colour has on the mood of the painting.

ICTArt KS3: Using the zoomable image of Lake Keitele on the National Gallery website carefully study the textured surface quality of the impasto. Explore the technique further in students' own work and investigate other illusionary practices used by artists, such as perspective.

KS4Post 16: Using the National Gallery online collection, search for other late 19th-century painters. Compare the subject matter and techniques of Akseli Gallen-Kallela's Lake Keitele with Impressionist and other non-French paintings.

For teachers' notes on paintings in the Paradise exhibition visit

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