Janis Rozentāls (1866-1916), is one of the best known Latvian painters. It is safe to say that every Latvian knows his work "After Church" (pictured above), painted in 1894, which at the competition of the diploma works of the St Petersburg Imperial Art Academy earned its author the status of first degree artist. In 2016, we mark the 150th anniversary of Janis Rozentāls.

 

"After Church" ("Pēc dievkalpojuma"/"No baznīcas"), 1894

Common among the membership of the Latvian art students group called "Rūķis" ("Elf") in the 1990s St Petersburg, was the wish to create works that would depict the nature, everyday life, and history of their native land.  An early success of these national-patriotic aspirations was the painting "After Church" ("Pēc dievkalpojuma"/"No baznīcas") by Janis Rozentāls (1866-1916), which, at the 1894 competition of the diploma works of the St Petersburg Imperial Art Academy earned its author the status of first degree artist and accolades at the first Latvian art exhibition in Riga in 1896.

At the time the painting was created, it was important both to Rozentāls and the Latvian society at large to augment the awareness of the Latvian nation as a multifaceted whole. The artist carried out this task by depicting people coming out of church in his native town of Saldus, actually creating a dynamic gallery of portraits of his contemporaries. There are people at the height of their physical strength, youths, children, and old people; farmhands and well-to-do farmers; the successful and the poor – the entire congregation gradually returning to their everyday lives. An indirect confirmation to the importance of the identity of place was Rozentāls’s excited reference to his fellow student Johann Valters’s diploma work as "a piece of real life and particularly Jelgava life." Echoing the social realism of the Russian peredvizhniks, yet without the emphasis on the negative characteristic of them, Rozentāls used the recent reform at the Academy that now allowed him to use his native town and its inhabitants as the subject matter for his diploma work. Several of the people portrayed in this work made it also to "From the Cemetery" (1895, LNMM), which was painted a year later; here, however, he is more interested in the chiaroscuro effects than in the composite image of the local society.

Art historian Jānis Siliņš has said about Rozentāls that "he established his own tradition in the genre paintings of our peasants, being a classical master of the kind Blaumanis was in Latvian literature". Yet this theme was only one facet of the varied activities of this Latvian artist. Rozentāls painted a variety of everyday scenes, portraits, religious compositions, fantasies inspired by folklore and international symbolism; he worked in graphics; made sketches for ornamental compositions; wrote about contemporary art and art theory; worked in art education as well as left behind an epistolary legacy rich in evidence about his era. His work contained elements of realism, national romanticism, symbolism, impressionism, art nouveau, and neoclassicism – depending on the period and the artistic objective. One of Rozentāls’s roles in art was that of a medium through whom European ideas and methods, innovative on the local scale, found their way into Latvia.

Rozentāls was the son of a poor country blacksmith whose story of success not only as a founder of the national school of painting but as modernizer of the Baltic art as such, has inspired not only historical research but also the authors of biographical novels. Since 1901, when Rozentāls permanently settled in Riga, he was one of the most active and influential Latvian cultural figures; his marriage (1903) to the Finnish singer Elli Forsel strengthened Latvia’s ties to Finland. Rozentāls died in that country in 1916.

Text by Kristiāna Ābele for Latvian Culture Canon