One of the Finnish wedding traditions of old times was the bride’s sauna bathing before the wedding. The aim of the sauna ritual was, apart from the bride making herself beautiful, her preparation for her following life stage, and her symbolically giving up her former life. The bridal sauna was decorated with straws or twigs from leaf trees, and the boards were covered with clean sheets. The bride’s friends – or as in Robert Wilhelm Ekman’s painting, an elderly woman who had been especially chosen for the task – often served as bath assistants.
In Robert Wilhelm Ekman’s work, Finnish sauna culture has been given an antiquitizing interpretation. The young bride is posing in the centre of the painting, like an antique sculpture in a twisted contrapposto position. The weight of her body is resting gracefully on one hip and her lower body is draped in a sheet, which is elegantly lowered. Her light skin is glowing in the dark sauna like marble, while the light that is falling from the left side beautifully emphasizes the young woman’s shoulders, breasts, and the curve of her hip. The bundle of birch twigs (vihta) that the bride is holding in her left hand seems like a slightly irrelevant detail, but for the significance of the work, it is important. Thanks to the vihta, the contemporaries of the artist could understand that this antique classical beauty, instead of representing Venus, represents a Finnish peasant woman.
Why did Ekman paint as he did? Because he was bound by the art education of his time, and on the other hand, by the established ways of producing pictures. Ekman belonged to a generation of artists whose work aspired to regularity, and through this to an attainable harmony, in other words, a kind of beauty. Ekman studied the Finnish peasantry, cautiously and from a distance, and depicted it in an idealizing manner.
The period of Realism reached Finnish painting art only later, through the work of Akseli Gallen-Kallela. His representations of Finnish sauna culture were completely different.