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The artist brothers Magnus, Wilhelm and Ferdinand von Wright are known as painters of portraits, landscapes and nature subjects, especially birds. They are also known as creators of scientific illustrations of flora and fauna. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Before the days of high definition photography accurate paintings of natural history were the only means of recording wildlife for all to see. The von Wright brothers belong among the best to capture the spirit of birds on canvas.

A major exhibition of over 300 works by the von Wright Brothers opens at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki today. The brothers’ works reflect changes in society and the development of art over the 19th century, which the exhibition demonstrates.

Many Finns are unaware that there were three brothers who painted, Magnus (1805-1868), Wilhelm (1810-1887) and Ferdinand (1822-1906).  Magnus was known for his landscape paintings and was an influential cultural figure working as a teacher at Helsinki University school of drawing and was an expert in the Finnish Art Society.  Wilhelm’s career took him to Sweden where he worked as a scientific illustrator for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Ferdinand was the best known of the brothers. He had the longest career and was one of the first Finnish artists to make a living from art. The exhibition shows the differences between the brothers together with research from the journals they kept and their correspondence by letter.

Geese and a crow as seen through the eyes of Ferdinand von Wright. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

In the 19th century, it was difficult to paint outdoors because all the oil paints had to be self-mixed; paints in convenient tubes were yet to be created.  Of course, the advantages of working in the studio during a cold Finnish winter are obvious but did this mean the artist creating much detail from memory and brief sketches? Probably not because in the 19th century it was quite common to shoot the bird to be able to paint it.

The brothers were proficient hunters and they also relied on studying birds in the Natural history museums of Helsinki, Stockholm and St Petersburg. Included in the display are a few birds that were stuffed by Magnus. Even so, the paintings of wildlife on display are amazing because of the accuracy and high level of detail the brothers captured. At least these days birds benefit from painters having huge zoom lenses instead of rifles.

[alert type=white ]At least these days birds benefit from painters having huge zoom lenses instead of rifles.[/alert]

Chief Curator of the exhibition Anne-Maria Pennonen likes the intricate fish paintings. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Ferdinand’s The Fighting Capercaillies painted in 1886 is probably one of the most famous works of Finnish art, and also one of the most copied works. Not only birds, the brothers painted landscapes, still life, fish, reptiles, anatomical studies, and I particularly enjoyed the scenes of domestic life in the house and on the farm. They provide a snapshot of 19th-century Finland before concrete buildings and asphalt roads. Some of the scenes may be overly romantic but others show the brutal truth about poverty in rural Finland. Anne-Maria Pennonen, the chief curator of the exhibition told me that her favourite paintings are the small fish found in room 20, “they’re incredibly detailed.”

Two contemporary artists exhibit alongside the von Wright’s works. The photographic artist Sanna Kannisto photographs subjects as still life taking her studio out into nature.  Jussi Heikkilä is a conceptual artist and his works make a comment about the state of the earth and the significance of birds as an indicator of the state of the environment.

It is a real shame that the von Wright brothers are not well known outside of Scandinavia. Susanna Pettersson, the museum’s director, informed me that the paintings reflected the places where the Brothers travelled, mostly Sweden and Finland.  As a result, the works are almost entirely held in these two countries but certainly worth the journey to Helsinki for something different that even the large art museums of London and Paris might envy.

The von Wright brothers’ exhibition will be open to the public from October 27 2017 to February 25 2018.