Elin Danielson was born on 3 September 1861 in Norrmark, a small village near Pori in the Gulf of Bornia. Her father, Karl, and mother, Amalia Rosa Gestrin, and their families were of Swedish origin and had been settled in Finland for several generations. Elin spent her childhood on her family’s farm in the country. In 1872 she suddenly came face to face with the harsh realities of life with the dramatic suicide of her father who was a smallholder and who left his wife and young children Elin and Rosa (Titty) in economic difficulty. Yet the three women were always able to count on the attentive and affectionate support of Amalia’s brother, Mauritz Gestrin, who also helped Elin during her years spent in Italy. Indeed it was he who organised his niece’s paintings in Finland as well as those of her husband, Raffaello. He advised Elin as to which Finnish exhibitions and cultural events to attend and he worked at selling their paintings. From Italy Danielson never missed the most important exhibitions in Finland thanks to the constant involvement of her maternal uncle.
Right from her childhood, Elin showed a natural talent for art so in ’76 the young woman moved to Helsinki, and under the protection of her uncle and aunt Mauritz and Clara, went to the school of Design of the Finnish Society of Arts where she studied classical drawing, landscape and perspective. Her teachers included Carl Eneas Sjöstrand and Hjalmar Munsterhjelm (1840-1905), a well-known artist who had studied in Düsseldorf, a successful landscape artist although lacking in originality. At the same time, as she soon started work, Elin studied porcelain decoration under Fanny Sundblad, an excellent teacher who had first hand training in the Sèvres and Copenhagen factories. Starting in ’78 Danielson attended courses at Adolf Von Becker’s Academy, a private art school where she learned how to paint in oils, studied figure painting and still life painting in detail and learned how to transpose the qualities of various materials – glass, fabrics, porcelain, metals – onto canvas. Elin was a highly motivated student and stood out for the dedication and determination with which she tackled every subject, working hard and making great progress, she achieved an excellent mastery of technique and was one of the Academy’s star pupils.
In 1880 Von Becker brought the nineteen year old into the public eye with an exhibition of figure painting which she had studied while she was at the academy. In the same period Elin managed to obtain her teaching diploma to teach drawing in high schools. After all it was easier to obtain the financial independence which she needed through teaching than by the complex and rarely profitable path of a career as an “artist”. Elin Danielson had a strong character, was independent and determined, was able to support herself by commissions of porcelain painting and by giving drawing lessons. But she did not feel that teaching was her vocation, she increasingly felt that art was her great passion in life, her calling.
In 1883 she received a scholarship from the Senate (the first of others she was awarded in ’84 and ’88) and this meant she could give up teaching and go to Paris, the city where all young Scandinavians longed to go to complete their studies. Danielson, who was sociable and liked meeting interesting people, quickly fitted into the flourishing coterie of Northern European artists settled in Paris (Edelfelt, Gallén, Schjerfbeck, Rönnberg, Westermarck, Järnefelt, etc.). She attended painting courses at the Colarossi Academy under Gustave Courtois and Raphäel Collin, an artist connected to the circle of Naturalism, the dominant movement of the period. Elin studied at the Academy from eight until five studying from the nude for the first time and in great detail. The models there were excellent and the standard of teaching very high. Elin found Paris exciting and it stimulated in her a desire to be famous. She studied the masters of the past and observed the work of her contemporaries by often visiting the Salons. She also became part of the French circle of Naturalism, her sculptor friend Sigrid af Forselles introducing her to Auguste Rodin’s studio where she also learned the rudiments of sculpture. In the summer of ’84 she went to Brittany where she stayed until the spring of ’85. She worked in Pont-Aven and in Concarneau, and was able to meet the most influential French Naturalist artist, Jules Bastien-Lepage. In Brittany she studied plein-air painting continuously, achieving very respectable results, contact with the outdoors and the famous Master led her to lighten her palette that, until this time was characterised by the use of blues and browns, and she began to become especially interested in light.
In ’86 Danielson returned to her home country, living in Norrmark, Helsinki and Önningeby, a small district on the Island of Mariehamn on the Aland archipelago. It was here that the artist Victor Westerholm had gathered together many young Finnish artists and a few Swedish ones, to work together in a group. The dynamic, harmonious artistic colony hit the headlines and was also followed by the press. Starting in 1887 Elin began to have her first exhibition successes and to earn a degree of fame with her portraits of women. Her work shows great expertise but also demonstrates a remarkable ability to see the world from an individual viewpoint. While establishing her feminist stance her works become increasingly slightly critical of middle class conventions and elevate the role of women in contemporary society. In 1888 she returned once more to Paris with a scholarship, widened her circle of acquaintances and went out with Puvis de Chavannes, a charismatic artist for the Scandinavian Symbolists too and, in the Bouvet studio she met Alfred Roll. 1888 is the year when she painted the captivating portrait of her friend Hilma Westerholm which won her a bronze medal at the Paris Esposizione Universale in 1889. In 1890 she was once again in Finland where she began a relationship with the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland that lasted for five years. She still dedicated her time to teaching drawing in order to earn a living but she also worked intensely producing Finnish style landscapes and genre paintings that often caused outcries from the public and critics. From 1891 to 1895 Elin divided her time between Paris and Finland, travelling often and staying in the great European cities (Copenaghen, Berlin, Petersburg, Venice, Florence, etc.).
The artist’s visit to Italy in 1895 aroused her interest and having won a scholarship she returned to Florence in January 1896 to study the great masters and nurtured a secret ambition of getting into the Accademia. During the summer she went to Antignano to take the waters and at the seaside she had the fateful meeting with Fattori’s young pupil, Raffaello Gambogi who in ’95 had won the “Premio Unico della Società di Belle Arti di Firenze” with “Emigranti”. A little later the two got engaged and in February 1898 were married with the Pope’s special permission as Elin was a Protestant. A month later they were already settled in Torre del Lago, where they lodged in a small two-storey house with a garden and a vegetable garden that Elin cultivated personally according to Nordic tradition. At Torre they moved in the artistic circle that had grown up around Giacomo Puccini and that was already familiar to Gambogi from previous years. Their early married life was marked by their prolific output and mutual creativity, the couple winning awards and critical acclaim. At the “Festa dell’Arte e dei Fiori di Firenze” (1896 – 1897) Gambogi presented the highly-praised painting, “All’ombra” (In the Shade). In 1899 Danielson exhibited “Estate” (Summer) at the “Società di Belle Arti di Firenze” and the work was purchased by King Umberto for 4.000 lire, that same year she was accepted at the Venice Biennial with “Sera d’Inverno” (Winter Evening) a work that was shown in the room for “Italian artists not belonging to any association”. Elin was the first Finnish artist to be admitted to the prestigious exhibition and exhibiting her work at these two events was a good way for her to make a name for herself in Italy as well. In Florence again, in 1900, she was awarded a silver medal for the beautiful “Autoritratto” (Self-Portrait) and in Paris she received a bronze medal with “Madre” (Mother) and “Nella vigna” (In the Vineyard), a work purchased by the Turku Museum in Finland.
In the autumn of 1899 Elin contracted typhus at Torre del Lago, she was advised to move and so the couple decided to go to Antignano. In 1900 Elin went to Paris to receive her medal. Raffaello was able to join her there and to visit the Salon because he had managed to sell two paintings at the Promotrice and was awarded a cash prize of 500 lire. At the end of the year Elin invited her artist friend Dora Wahlroos to Leghorn. Unfortunately Dora started an affair with Gambogi, putting the marriage in crisis, the couple started to argue for the first time and divorce was discussed. In the summer of 1901 the Gambogi’s went on a trip across Europe to Finland. They took with them the paintings they had done in Italy and in October they showed them at an exhibition at Helsinki where they had a room to themselves; the exhibition was a great success. It was precisely during this trip (the only important trip they went on together) that Gambogi began to show the first symptoms of mental illness. Early in 1902 they returned to Italy and the artist from Leghorn, completely lacking in any practical ability tended to lean more and more on his wife and to leave her all the work. Elin was forced to organise everything and to increasingly sacrifice the time she could devote to her art. The marriage was still shaky, Elin not being able to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity. She was depressed, disappointed and undecided about her future. At the end of the year, without her husband’s permission (he should have signed her passport) she decided to leave and, going first from London and then from Stockholm, she finally reached Finland.
In October 1903 she exhibited at the Turku, at the end of the year she decided to return to Italy in an attempt to repair her marriage with her beloved and unhappy Raffaello. In 1905 the couple decided to move to Volterra to try to cure Raffaello’s worsening mental condition. He was admitted to the hospital run by the psychiatrist Luigi Scabia. The couple lived in Volterra until the end of the first decade of the century. They were years of solitude, an unhappy, troubled period marked by financial hardship yet the couple continued to paint. It was very possible that is was the miraculous power of art that provided a solace to their troubled lives. Elin often returned to Finland (1907, 1909, 1911) and was able to keep in contact with her family and the artists she had known throughout the impetuous years of her youth and early maturity, in particular with Hilma and Victor Westerholm, with whom she always kept up a continuous correspondence. 1913 saw Elin’s last visit to her homeland, the outbreak of the war meant she could no longer return to Finland. In 1914 the artist took part in the Venice Biennial with a Self Portrait but she also had many other shows: she exhibited in Milan (Esposizione Nazionale de Belle Arti 1914 and 1916, the Permanente 1915), in Florence (Società di Belle Arti 1913, 1914, 1915 and 1918), in Rome (Società Amatori e Cultori di Belle Arti 1914 and 1915) and also in Leghorn (1° Mostra di Arte Livornese, Bagni Pancaldi 1912 with “Interno” (Interior) where, having left Volterra the couple resettled, dividing their time between Florence and Antignano.
Struck down by a fatal attack of pneumonia, Elin died on 31 December 1919.
Written by: Giovanna Bacci di Capaci Conti – Translated by: Catherine Biggerstaff
© Studio d’Arte dell’800