Thursday, September 01, 2011

Mademoiselles Who Dabble With Paints: Fanny Churberg

This is how the Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela described the astonishing small group of Finnish women painters of the late nineteenth century: "mamselles" dabbling with paints. He most likely felt threatened.

This small group of "dabbling women" came from the Swedish-speaking upper classes of the era. That young women of their social class were expected to get some skills in drawing and painting accidentally prepared them for later art education. Several of them managed to study in Paris; few, if any, managed to make a living out of painting and many of them ended their careers prematurely. But to this day such names as Helene Schjerfbeck, Maria Wiik, Ellen Thesleff and Fanny Churberg are well-known in the history of Finnish art.

I did not write the above paragraph with the intention of summarizing the historical situation of women in arts but perhaps managed to do it anyway.

Note the need to have access to training: Traditionally this was only available for some daughters of painters and some women of the upper classes. Note the usual difficulties of women trying to enter the traditionally male public sector: Women in the nineteenth century could get an art education, but they had more difficulty than men: not all schools accepted women, single women traveling abroad alone were suspect and nude models were not deemed appropriate for women. Some of the Finnish female painters got government grants for their studies in Paris, though usually for a shorter length of time than the awards for male painters. There was support for women working in art but the market did not reward them sufficiently, and the traditional female role expectations weighed on them and their work heavily.

Fanny Churberg offers a good example of all this:

Fanny Churberg (12 December 1845 Vaasa - 10 May 1892 Helsinki) was a Finnish painter and one of the great masters of her time.

Her father, Matias Churberg, was a doctor from a family of farmers and her mother Maria was the daughter of the vicar in Liperi parish, Nils Johan Perander.


When Fanny was twelve her mother died and she had to take on large parts of the responsibility of being the matron of the house. Later on she got sent to a girls' school in Porvoo, but she returned to Vaasa when she was 17–18 years old. When she was 20 her father died. Fanny cared for him day and night during the last months of his life. After her father's death she and her brothers moved to Helsinki where they lived with their aunt.


Fanny Churberg's career ended suddenly in 1880. Her health was weaker and she took care of her brother Torsten who was suffering from tuberculosis. Torsten's death in 1882 made her quite lonely and her will to live lessened as did her energy. The other brother Waldemar, who she used to be very close to, had married in 1877. The reason for ending her career might also have been the harsh criticism she had met before, but she never withdrew completely from the art circles.
Churberg belongs to the Dusseldorf school. She is best known for her landscape paintings:

Moonbeams. A sketch, 1878

C. 1878. Winter Road on Ice.


In the 1870s Churberg's work was regarded as harsh and hard. She was criticized for the power and tension evident in her paintings, for being too experimental. Later these very same characteristics created the basis for the acclaim her work has received.

What made me pick Churberg as the first of the "mamselles" to cover are her views on the "woman question" of her era. On the one hand she was an adamant feminist. On the other hand she has been quoted as stating that if the "woman question" did not advance to a suitable solution then women could blame only themselves and keep curtsying forevermore. The same tension as shown in her art?

The posts in this series (this being the first) were provoked by a 1981 book I bought at a library sale in Finland, called Taitelijattaria. Malarinnor. The goal is to apply the particular to shed light on the general, in this case on the obstacles of women entering a new field of endeavors.