Art on Åland

The oldest of all Ålandic art consists of archaeological finds such as clay idols and decorated pottery. The oldest preserved examples of pictorial art are the frescos of the medieval stone churches that can be found all over the Åland islands. What artists produced these works, however, is impossible to know. One of the few artists known to have painted church frescos is Master Mårten Johansson whose name is mentioned during the 1600s. One of his works, “Sankt Göran och draken” (Saint George and the Dragon), is still preserved in the church in Saltvik.

During the 19th century the amount of artists on Åland increased, although relatively few of them occupied themselves with studio painting. Rather, many folk artists painted murals in wealthy homes or decorated furniture and articles for everyday use. Most of these artists too remain unknown.

The most famous of all folk art painters on Åland is Carl Kuhlman (1823-85) from Nääs in Saltvik. Kuhlman painted murals and blinds with grand land and cityscapes but he also decorated furniture and produced easel paintings.

Around the same time shipping and peasant sailing grew ever more important. Consequently, ship owners and captains commissioned portraits of their ships and, in fact, the first real painting in many homes was a ship portrait. Foreign oil prints and lithographs also began to find their way into Ålandic homes.

During the middle of the 19th century the Arts Academy of Düsseldorf became a centre for European genre and landscape painting. Artists from all over the Nordic countries travelled to this city by the Rhine in order to study with others of like mind. Among them were several hundreds of Finnish artists such as Werner Holmberg, Hjalmar Munsterhjelm, Fanny Churberg and Berndt Lindholm. Two Ålanders who studied at Düsseldorf were Karl Emanuel Jansson (1846-74) and Anders August Jansson (1859-82).

Having sketched at home, the artists then travelled to Düsseldorf to finish their paintings in a studio. All painting of this kind had its basis in careful nature studies in that several meticulous sketches with tiny details were assembled into complete landscape paintings.

Although the Düsseldorf School of painting did strive to depict nature, it was not a question of nature such as it is, but as a romanticized idea. Stressing all things idyllic and picturesque, artists often portrayed scenes and chores of old. As Nationalism gained a hold of society, artists also incorporated more and more nationalistic elements in their paintings.

Karl Emanuel Jansson (1846-74), Åländsk bondbrud (detail), 1869, OOC, Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum.

Karl Emanuel Jansson was born in 1846, the son of a farmer in Pålsböle in Finström. His artistic talent was recognised by the dean Frans Petter von Knorring who saw to it that Jansson was granted a scholarship by the Finnish Art Association in order to study at the Turku Drawing School. Jansson’s teacher in Turku was the court painter Robert Wilhelm Ekman.

Jansson was successful in his studies and was consequently granted several more scholarships. In 1862 he continued his studies at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and six years later he travelled to Düsseldorf. Karl Emanuel Jansson died in 1874, the very year he was accepted to the prestigious St. Petersburg Academy of Arts.

Jansson was only 23 when painted his most famous painting, “Åländsk bondbrud” (Åland Peasant Bride), in Düsseldorf. The painting was critically acclaimed and purchased by the Finnish Art Association. Jansson also painted many portraits and scenes from the everyday life of the common people, such as “Klöveress” (Ace of Clubs), “I dörren till sakristian” (At the Vestry Door) and “Slant i håven” (Collecting Money in a Church). Many of his works can be found in the collections of the Ateneum Art Museum.

Karl Emanuel Jansson’s subtle interiors display great talent. Unfortunately his career was cut short much too early when he fell ill and died of tuberculosis at only 28.

Karl Emanuel Jansson (1846-74), Åländsk stuginteriör (detail), 1871, OOC, Stiftelsen Ålands Vänner.

During the 1870s and 1880s an entirely new kind of painting emerged: outdoor or plein air painting. Artists ventured out from their studios in order to paint in the open air. The idealized landscape composition was substituted with realistic depictions of nature in which particular attention was paid to portraying the changing light. This was facilitated by the appearance of completely new pigments and shades of colour.

Many artists gathered to live in colonies where they could work together and be inspired by each other. The most famous of the Nordic colonies was located in the Danish village of Skagen. A Finnish equivalent was the Önningeby artists’ colony which was founded in 1886 by Victor Westerholm (1860-1919) from Turku. In 1884 Westerholm bought a summer house by the Lemström canal and encouraged all his friends to come to the Åland islands to paint. Artists who spent time in Önningeby include J.A.G. Acke, Hanna Rönnberg, Elin Danielson-Gambogi, Edvard Westman and Elias Muukka.

The artists at Önningeby chose to depict nature, often farmers at work or scenes of people moving about in the cultural landscape. Although the Önningeby artists did influence local art to some degree, most locals had little understanding for their choice of motif and method. The Önningeby artists’ colony era ended with the outbreak of the First World War and the death of Westerholm.

Since 1992 there is a museum in Önningeby which, apart from a permanent exhibition on the Önningeby artists’ colony, also holds special exhibitions of contemporary art.


Elin Danielson-Gambogi (1861-1919), Skördetid (detail), OOP.

The Åland art-world’s own van Gogh, Joel Pettersson, in his time regarded as an eccentric, is nowadays widely appreciated for his artistic achievements.

In addition to a year of art studies at Turku Drawing School, he lived almost his entire life in the village of Norrby in Lemland. There, despite a lack of interest and talent for agriculture, he was required to take over the home farm. Both agriculture and an attempt at poultry farming failed miserably, and caused his sensitive, artistic soul to suffer. Like van Gogh, his life ended prematurely.

Joel Pettersson’s art has a completely different expression than that of the Önningeby colony. His paintings can best be described as expressionist, with bold colours and bold brush strokes. Because of the simple materials he used – plain paint on cardboard or paper clamp – the colour intensity has not been preserved for posterity.

Joel Pettersson was a jack of all trades, who besides painting devoted himself to theater and literature. He wrote and directed plays, made the sets, puppets and theater costumes, and wrote short stories and other prose. He also appeared in a one-man show called “Uncle Joel draw and tell.”

Art on Åland did not change much during the first half of the 20th century. International art movements such as Die neue Sachlichkeit or Surrealism had little influence on Åland. Realistic Naturalism continued to be considered the ideal and was represented by artists such as Thure Malmberg (1894-1968), Erik Juselius (1891-1948), Algot Nordlund (1904-93), Erik Arthur Henriksson (1891-1948) and Anton Bengtsson (1896-1980).

Following the Second World War, art life on Åland experienced a boom when the Åland Art Association was founded in 1953. The initiator behind this was Nils Byman (1906-96) who also played a major part in the foundation of the Åland Art Museum in 1963.

The Art Association arranged courses and art camps which were to have a great impact on the development of art on the Åland islands. Although nature continued to be the most common motif, execution was strongly influenced by Cubism, Expressionism and Concretism. Apart from Nils Byman, this generation of artists includes Ture Bengtz (1907-73), Hildur Stenbäck (1912-98) and Bo Högnäs (1919-91) − all of whom had their very own style of expression.

One artist who went his own way early on was Henrik Nylund (1945-1982). In addition to monumental paintings, Nylund created delicate images of nature in the archipelago using several different techniques. Furthermore, he was a visionary regarding the development of cultural life on Åland.

Efter andra världskriget skedde ett uppsving i det åländska konstlivet då Ålands konstförening grundades 1953. Initiativtagare var Nils Byman (1906-96), som också spelade en viktig roll i grundandet av Ålands konstmuseum 1963.

Konstföreningen anordnade kurser och målar-läger som fick stor betydelse för konstens utveckling på Åland. Fortfarande var naturen det vanligaste motivet, men uttryckssättet influerades starkt av kubism, expressionism och konkretism. Nils Byman, Ture Bengtz (1907-73), Hildur Stenbäck (1912-98) och Bo Högnäs (1919-91) hörde till denna generation konstnärer, var och en med sitt eget uttryck.

En konstnär som tidigt gick sin egen väg är Henrik Nylund (1945-1982). Han ägnade sig åt såväl monumentalmåleri som känsliga skildringar av skärgårdsnaturen i flera olika tekniker. Han var också en visionär när det gällde det åländska kulturlivets utveckling.

Having always been the main source of inspiration, nature continues to be very much a part of Ålandic art. 

Artists working on Åland today represent a range of different styles, such as Guy Frisk‘s (b. 1943) poetic and timeless landscapes;  Tage Wilén‘s (b. 1941) colourful depictions of the life of the common people; Kjell Ekström (b. 1961) watercolours that often capture the transparency and light of the sea surrounding Åland.

The Åland art museum collection contains works of a.o. the artists: Kenneth Bamberg, Amanda Chanfreau, Keathy Ericsson-Jourdan, Barbro Eriksson, Barbro Gustavsson, Rita Jokiranta, Markus Kåhre, Henrika Lax, Stefan Lindfors, Caroline Pipping, Juha Pykäläinen, Johan Scott, Nanna Sjöström, Pauliina Turakka Purhonen, Jonas Wilén, Peter Winquist and Minna Öberg.