Janis Rozentāls

(1866–1916)

Janis Rozentāls was born in Saldus in march the 18th, 1866. Both of his parents were farmers, his father – a blacksmith. His family was poor, so barely at the age of 15 he moves to Riga, to find work to be able to sustain himself. Having worked occasional jobs, eventually he becomes an assistant to a painting master, and after a four year apprenticeship, becomes a junior painter.

He also attends lessons at the Riga (German) Trade school. In 1888, the young artists drawing receives the silver medal at the art school display in St. Petersburg, and J. Rozentāls goes to further his studies at the St. Petersburg Academy’s of Arts Painting Department, where at first he learns academic painting based in the traditions of classicism, but later, with the changes in the academies pedagogical staff, studies the so called Peredvizhnik school of painting that is based in the realism of movement.

At the end of the 19th century, a lot of talented young Latvian artists that latter become founders of the Latvian professional visual arts, study at the Academy of Art and other St. Petersburg art schools: Janis Rozentāls, Vilhelms Purvītis, Jānis Valters, Ādams Alksnis, Rihards Zariņš, Jūlijs Madernieks, Gustavs Šķilters and many others. They create a a small circle called “Rūķis” (Dwarf) that unites not only upcoming artists, but also musicians. They have thematic evenings, talk about issues of art and the happenings in the cities art scene, discuss their works and the works of their colleagues.

During his years of studies, J. Rozentāls makes his daily living as a interior painter, afterwards mainly does commission work, but in Summer with his study mates travels Latvia and paints in nature. The early period of his paintings has a lot in common with the artisan tradition – he creates realistic portraits, and photographic similarity in these works has a crucial importance.

With the study trend in the academia changing from the academic towards the realistic, Rozentāls in his graduation paper turns towards social life: people leaving the Saldus Lutheran church after Sunday service. He works a lot on this subject in his hometown, takes photographs, draws models and studies.

Photography has a crucial role in further life of J. Rozentāls – he has always used photographs in the compositional searches of his paintings. His creative legacy includes 500 pictures.
For his graduation work „Pēc dievkalpojuma” („No baznīcas”) (After church service (From the church)) he receives a 1st grade artist’s degree.

An important role for the artist is in the contact with the Western European art life. His foreign trip in 1897 takes him to the Scandinavian industrial and international art exhibition in Stockholm, where can be seen not only Nordic art, but also art by distinguished artists of other countries. In 1898, St. Petersburg Academy’s of Arts lecturer and painter Arhip Kuindži pays for Rozentāls expenses, so he can travel around Western Europe for a month with students of his workshop. During latter years, Rozentāls also travels often, visits Finland, France, Italy and other countries.

In 1902, the Finnish singer Elli Forssell arrives in Riga on a concert tour, to play two shows. After the concert, which the painter also attends, they meet at a social gathering in the singer’s honour. Not soon after, on 5th of March, 1905, in Helsinki, they celebrate their wedding.
They mainly live in Riga, first with their Baltic German friends the Borherts family, latter in the house on Alberta 12–9 (where the museum is located), designed by Konstantīns Pēkšēns un Eižens Laube. But often times, especially during summers, they spend time in Finland, especially at the Forssell family summer house in Nummel. Janis Rozentāls meets multiple Finnish cultural workers, artists, and the experience in this country has a continuous important role in his art.

Elli becomes Rozentāls female ideal both in life and art. Rozentāls depicts her both as a mother and as Eve, and as religiously exalted Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross. Usually she is a mother – Madonna, but without the religious nimbus, holy, but simultaneously human: seen in the works „Māte ar bērnu” (Mother with child) (1904), „Zem pīlādža” (Underneath the Rowan Tree) (1905).

Albeit at the basis of his artistic style is the academic and realistic painting taught at St. Petersburg, with time his artistic style changes: he is influenced by impressionism, later by art nouveau and symbolical painting. At the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries, many of his best known works are produced: „Nāve” (Death, 1897) „Teiksma” (Tale, around 1897),  „Princese un pērtiķis” (The Princess and The Monkey, 1913).
Corresponding to the style of art nouveau and symbolism is also the decorative friezes of the Riga Latvian Society’s exterior, where characters from Latvian mythology and allegories are shown that symbolize physical, spiritual and moral values of people.

The most popular genre in Rozental’s work is portraiture. He has both painted his friends, family members and cultural workers, as well as done commission work. The greatest amonst these are: “Rozentāles portrets” (Portrait of Mrs Rozentāls, 1906), „Pianistes Rēsleres portrets” (Portrait of Pianist Rēsler, 1910), „M. Vīgneres-Grīnbergas portrets” (Portrait of M. Vīgner-Grīnberg, 1916). At times Rozentāls also painted social scenes, especially loving scenes from Finland, Sigulda and his native Saldus, as well as religious scenes, such as altar paintings for Stendes (1903), Dundagas (1912) and other churches.

Book illustrations, press or practical graphics were not foreign to him either, he worked on the visual design of the almanac “Zalktis” (Grass–snake), the magazine “Auseklis” and “Vērotājs” (Viewer), and others. He also occasionally worked as an art critic, writing articles on such artists as Ā. Alksnis, V. Purvītis, R. Zariņš and others, as well as foreign artists and art – J. Whislter, A. Edelfelt and others.

The First World War takes the Rozentāls family to Helsinki in 1915. There unexpectedly the painter dies on the 26th of December, 1916. Initially he is buried in Helsinki, but in 1920, when the family returns to Riga, is reburied in the II Forest Cemetery.

Dace Vosa,

Director of The Janis Rozentāls and Rūdolfs Blaumanis Museum

 

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