Juho Rissanen, Old Man Istolainen, 1897

Juho Rissanen’s (1873–1950) watercolour painting Old Man Istolainen was acquired for Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation’s collections in 2006. Since its completion in 1897, the work has been exhibited in Finland and abroad in several solo exhibitions of the artist as well as in exhibitions of Finnish art. 

The artwork portrays an elderly carriage driver from Kuopio. Olli Istolainen (1810–1903), who stood model for the painting, lived at Kemilänmäki at the bottom of Puijo-hill, in the same house, where Rissanen was born.

A indication of high quality art is, that it endures several viewings and that its contents has several layers. Also, the contents of an artwork changes or diversifies, if it can be studied from another viewpoint. As for Old Man Istolainen, I have often wondered, what the local art world in Helsinki have thought about the artwork, as it was exhibited in autumn of 1897 for the first time in Finnish Artists’ Exhibition. What did the audience see in it, was it in their opinion, a portrait or perhaps a depiction of common people?

Looking from the viewpoint of fine arts, Old Man Istolainen must, in all its ruggedness, have been a very odd sight for the audience consisting of Finnish upper class people. It could not have been real art, could it, because it was practically hideous? Or could it be that the artwork was on the verge of being beautiful because of its ugliness. It could not have been a portrait either; because portraits were painted of the representatives of the established classes, never of those of the common people, weren’t they?

In that case, the painting perhaps represents some kind of depiction of the common people, but which kind? The artwork portrays a Finnish-looking old man, representing the Finnish type of people. According to the nationalist way of thinking in Finland, a typically Finnish person should however have been depicted in an uplifting way, preferably following the ideals of romanticism and idealism. Rissanen’s early depictions of common people were exceptionally rough and uncompromisingly realistic, even for his own time.

Old Man Istolainen was completed in Kuopio, where the first to take a view of the work were the closest friends of the 24-year-old Rissanen as well as those of the 87-year-old model. For them the painting, most likely, was essentially a portrait of a known man. The simplified form of depiction did probably not bother them, for the suburban habitat and way and of life at Northern Savo were rough and simple, like its expression in the painting. Sophistication and showing off were regarded both futile and ungodly.

The upright carriage driver Istolainen, who used to sit on driver’s seat for his living, has a grey hair and his teeth have fallen off. On his nose, the askew and low sitting glasses reveal that he is a well-read person and a typical 19th-century pipe with a long stem reveals that the model of the painting has reached his own peace. He is his own man, a dignified and independent person.

Marjo-Riitta Simpanen
Curator, art historian

Juho Rissanen, Old Man Istolainen, 1897, water colour and charcoal on paper, Gösta Serlachius fine Arts Foundation. Photo: Hannu Miettinen.
Juho Rissanen, Old Man Istolainen, 1897, water colour and charcoal on paper, Gösta Serlachius fine Arts Foundation. Photo: Hannu Miettinen.