The Finnish painter, graphic designer and photographer Axel Gallen, who was later known as Akseli Gallen-Kallela, was born in Pori on April 26, 1865. His father died suddenly in 1879 when Axel was attending high school in Helskinki. From 1878-1881 Axel attended evening classes at a drawing school in Helskinki, which was run by the Finnish Fine Arts Association. He also received art tuition at the Central School of Applied Arts.
At the age of 19 Axel Gallen moved to Paris to study at the Julian Academy. In Paris he met the Swedish writer, photographer and painter August Strindberg. His introduction to Strindberg allowed Axel to increase his own knowledge of photography, an interest of his that had begun back in Helsinki when he had his portrait taken by a leading photographer.
During his time in Paris, Axel Gallen’s painting an old woman with a cat was exhibited by the Society of French Artists. When he returned to Helsinki he fell in love with Mary Slöör while painting her portrait. He spent much of his time painting a series of landscapes and rural scenes, which gained him artistic recognition in his own country.
Axel and Mary were finally able to get married and their wedding took place in Helsinki on May 20, 1890. By his time Gallen had developed a fascination for the Finnish mythology relating to Kalevala, an ancient poetical epic. In 1895 Gallen bought a plot of land, where he would build a suitable home for his growing family and a studio for himself, and he named it Kalela.
Gallen became a pioneer of graphic art in Finland, producing etchings and woodcuts and painting on stained glass. He was also awarded a gold medal for the mythological designs he created for the ceiling of a pavilion at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
In 1901 Gallen received a private commission to design a cycle of frescoes. The wealthy industrialist F. A. Juselius had built a large mausoleum and wanted frescoes for its interior walls. Shortly after Gallen completed this project in 1903, the frescoes began to suffer corrosive damage from the minerals in the plaster used as a base. The mausoleum’s porous sandstone also contributed to their decay.
By 1907 Axel Gallen had decided on an official name change. From then on he was known by the more Finnish-sounding name of Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Also that year, a group of German expressionists made him a permanent member of their progressive group. Seven years later Gallen-Kallela was honoured by an invitation to produce a self-portrait for the prestigious Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Following the War of Liberation in 1918, Gallen-Kallela was asked to design new military uniforms and medals for independent Finland. He also provided the Bank of Finland with designs for its new currency.
In 1923 the Chicago Art Institute honoured Gallen-Kallela by displaying a collection of his works, and the artist spent some time in the United States.
Back in Finland Gallen-Kallela worked with his son Jorma on a fresco project in 1928 for the cupola of the Finnish National Museum. On March 7, 1931 he died from pneumonia in a Stockholm hotel. He had been taken ill after delivering a modern art lecture in Copenhagen and never returned home.