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Rare painting thought missing found in Russian museum

A Finnish researcher has uncovered a long-lost oil painting by famed artist Albert Edelfelt in the collection of a Russian regional museum. The discovery helps shed light on Edelfelt's relationship with Imperial Russia.

Albert Edelfeltin öljyvärimaalaus kullatuissa kehyksissä.
The 1881 painting by A. Edelfelt, found at last. Long hair and dresses were normal court attire in the 19th century. Image: Erkka Mikkonen / Yle

An oil painting from the late 19th century by legendary Finnish artist Albert Edelfelt (1854—1905) has been found in the Rybinski city museum in Russia. The painting is of two young children in a luxurious room, and was presumed missing until now.

Art historian Sani Kontula-Webb says she came across the painting during an internet search.

"I noticed the painting by accident, but recognising it required closer study," she says.

Kontula-Webb is a graduate of the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg; she identified the missing painting based on details found in Edelfelt's sketches of the final piece. The studies are kept in the Ateneum art museum in Helsinki.

The sketches also helped identify the two children in the painting, who resemble young girls due to their long hair and dresses.

"It turns out these so-called girls are in fact Boris and Kirill, the sons of [the Tsar's brother] Grand Duke Vladimir," says vice-superintendent Sergei Ovsjannikov from the Rybinski museum.

Royal ties

The painting made its way to the Russian museum's collection after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and has remained there ever since.

The signed painting is from 1881 and was originally hung in the Vladimir Palace in St. Petersburg.

The painting is important for a third reason, because it sheds a bright light on the artist's relationship with the imperial family.

"This very portrait has probably been instrumental in helping Edelfelt sustain a glorious career among the Russian rulers," Kontula-Webb says.

After the piece in question was finished, Edelfelt was also commissioned to paint a portrait of Alexander III's children, Mihail and Ksenia. Edelfelt also painted several portraits of Tsar Nikolai II.

Fenno-Russian connections

In addition to being extremely popular in his home country, Edelfelt was also lauded in Russia during his life. His works are found in collections across the country, such as in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

But Edelfelt's legacy has waned in Russia, as have those of other Finns working there at the time. Finnish art history has also stayed mum on its artists' links with the eastern neighbour.

Kontula-Webb is writing her dissertation on this very subject. She hopes her research will make Fenno-Russian connections more widely known.

"I hope this will boost Edelfelt's recognition in Russia, and that the connection will be appreciated here in Finland, too," she says.

The researcher has already suggested that the newfound piece of history be loaned to Finland for an exhibition. Rybinski's Ovsjannikov is eager.

"We will do everything we can to get the painting to Finland, if that's what everyone wants," he says.

The painting is to be restored before any possible relocation.

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