Ellen Thesleff – the Master of Color and Movement

At long last, I went to the Ellen Thesleff exhibition in HAM (Helsinki Art Museum), to properly familiarize myself with her production. I was quite surprised how little I knew about her after all! The exhibition has already closed to make way for new arrangements, but as Thesleff was one of the most prominent and interesting female artists in the Finnish history, it is always timely to talk about her – while we are waiting for new expositions to open.

If you missed the exhibition, don’t worry. Thesleff’s works can be found for example in the collections of Helsinki Art Museum, Ateneum and Kuopio and Pori Art Museums.


To enjoy the works of an artist properly, it’s best to know some facts behind the paintings and carvings. Ellen Thesleff (1869–1954) was born in Helsinki but lived most of her childhood in Kuopio. More than that, she was a cosmopolitan, whose father, an artist himself, encouraged her career. Two of the most prominent places in her work are probably Murole, a small Finnish town in Northern Pirkanmaa region, and Florence, the beautiful city of culture in Italian Tuscany. Italy was like a second home to Thesleff, and the joie de vivre she experienced there is eminent in the bright color palette that is characteristic of her work from the early 1900s on. She was an extraordinary artist in many ways. She was unyielding and unapologetic, sometimes determined that she would become the Leonardo of the North. She did not dress or behave as was customary for women at the time. About Thesleff, it would only make sense to say that she lived for her art and was one with it.



Ellen Thesleff in early 1980s. Wikimedia Commons.


HAM’s display, to be sure, didn’t include all of Thesleff’s artwork, but it was a comprehensive dive to the different eras of her life as an artist. Expressionist landscape and nature paintings, symbolical portraits and self-portraits, Florence and woodblock print -inspired work engulfed in lovely bright colors, and the almost abstract and minimalistic works of her last years were all featured. 

For me, the most striking and conspicuous piece of art in the exhibition was Thyra Elizabeth, a portrait of Thesleff’s younger sister, made in 1892. The painting has also been accented in the promotion of the exhibition. This painting is pure symbolism and reminds me of such European classics of the genre as Fernand Khnopff and Gustav Klimt. This work is ethereal in its composition, but at the same time it engages irony in a cunning way – something that seems characteristic of Thesleff herself. A white flower to symbolize innocence, as well as an arrangement that resemblances paintings of Virgin Mary, is contrasted with the sense of pleasure radiating from the model.

Reasons to love Thesleff’s work:

  • The vibrant use of colors and techniques. Thesleff is known for her colors and the way she presents warm and sunny light even in her works that depict Finland. She used many techniques that still resulted in recognizable strokes. At times she seems to be painting movement more than structure.
  • The way she created art for art. Thesleff’s works do speak about their time, but her intention was not to document her surroundings. For example, she painted self-portraits that did not resemblance her. She created art – and answered with wit and irony to those who questioned her ways.
  • Variety of styles and genres. From dark and symbolistic portraits to colorful and dynamic expressionism, she mastered different genres with great self-confidence.

 “The woman was made for dreaming and the man – the man was made for making sure that she is not disturbed.”

Quotation by Ellen Thesleff



Ellen Thesleff: Self-Portrait (1895). Source: Wikimedia Commons. In public Domain in Finland and the U.S. 

This article is based on a visit to HAM’s exhibition: Ellen Thesleff – Minä maalaan kuin jumala.