The Focus exhibition 2008 Those Peasant Characters in Ateneum Art Museum addressed the ways in which peasants and farmers were depicted in late 19th-century art.
Venny Soldan-Brofeldt painted “Meal in a Peasant House in Savo” at the Niskanen farm near Iisalmi in the late summer of 1892. She later made two other versions of the same theme. The painting was on display for the first time in the autumn of 1892 at the Finnish Artists Exhibition at the Ateneum in Helsinki from where it was purchased by Senator Leo Mechelin for the sum of 500 Finnish marks on the first day. The book Finland i 19de seklet (Finland in the 19th century), edited by Mechelin, includes an illustration of this painting, but with a slightly different title, translated as “Dinner in a Savo Peasant House”. In a review of the exhibition for the Uusi Suometar newspaper, the painting has the title “A Peasant House”. The critic notes that the canvas is “Mrs. B’s” best work, although the faces of the figures seemed to be too monochrome “and perhaps therefore it gives a slightly schematic picture of those peasant characters”.
According to the interpretation given in 1892, the painting portrayed a meal somewhere in Savo, and by no means members of the Niskanen family at their own farmstead. The peasant figures depicted in the painting are not approached as individuals but instead as examp-les of folk characters or types, of what the common people were like, or should have been. The individual identities of the models in paintings of the people were of secondary importance. Could this even have meant the denial of personal identity, distancing the peasant characters to be mere abstractions losing their own identity? “Meal in a Pea-sant House in Savo” appears to repeat the ideal image of a peaceful and harmonious Finland that had been created by the poet J. L. Runeberg and the author Zacharias Topelius, according to whom the common people were humble and loved work and authority. The Finnish translations of Runeberg’s and Topelius’s works, originally written in the Swedish language, were meant to teach the common people to be aware of their own nobility. But did the people ultimately have the right and ability to claim their own will and history?
In the book edited by Mechelin, Zacharias Topelius notes that the people of the province of Savo had ”progressed further than their neighbours with regard to intellect and affluence.” In Boken om vårt land (The Book of Our Country) Topelius also describes the people Savo as conceited. Soldan-Brofeldt painted Meal at the farmstead of Kusti Niskanen at Haapajärvi. Kusti’s father Lauri Niskanen was a significant figure of the Pietist movement of his day. In 1822, he travelled with the Pietist leader Paavo Ruotsalainen to St. Petersburg to appeal to the Tsar of Russia behalf of peasants accused of and fined for illegally assembly. Niskanen, too, had been fined by a local county court for, among other things, using the familiar form of address when speaking to a person of the upper classes. At a bishop’s inspection carried out in Iisalmi 1823, Lauri Niskanen had questioned the spiritual authority of P. J. Collan, the dean of Iisalmi, by accusing him of being sinful by volition. The Pietists questioned the clergy’s faith in progress by concentrating on spiritual issues instead of seeking worldly riches.
In 1959 some of the identity and history of the subjects of the painting was restored, when Anni Eskelinen (née Niskanen) recalled in an interview for the Finnish Broadcasting Company how Soldan-Brofeldt came to the Niskanen farmstead to paint the work. In the interview Eskelinen names herself, her father Lauri, her mother Johanna, her uncle Pekka, her aunt Liisa and her brothers Kusti and Pekka among the figures in the painting. Soldan-Brofeldt had received permission to paint the Niskanen family from Kusti Niskanen, a friend of her husband Juhani Aho. Before coming to the Niskanen farmstead in the late summer of 1892 Soldan-Brofeldt and Aho had gone on an expedition together with Eero Järnefelt to the village of Tuulivara at Tuulijärvi in Russian Karelia.
In July 2007, Riikka Kuoppala and Pekka Niskanen followed in the footsteps of Soldan Brofeldt to Tuulivaara together with Valentina Golubeva, Pekka Huttu-Hiltunen, Markku Nieminen and a Russian border guard. In addition to paintings by Soldan-Brofeldt, the exhibition also features video works by Riikka Kuoppala and Pekka Niskanen on their trip to Karelia, Anni Eskelinen’s interview for the Finnish Broadcasting Company, works from the year 1892 from the collection of the Ateneum Art Museum, books associated with the exhibition, and items from a private collection.