Unknown artist: Portrait of a Woman, 18th century


90 years ago, Gösta Serlachius established a fine arts foundation to secure his art collection. Then, in 1933, the art collection comprised more than 220 works. Today, Serlachius’ art collection includes more than 10,000 works, and Serlachius also works nationally and internationally in the field of contemporary art. But where did it all begin, what was the first piece of art Serlachius acquired for his collection? 

Gösta Serlachius’ (1879–1942) inclinations towards both trading and collecting began at a very young age. He was in the last grade of school when his uncle G. A. Serlachius entrusted him the agency of selling paper bags from the Mänttä factory in his hometown of Jacobstad, Nykarleby and Gamlakarleby.

During the Christmas and summer holidays, young Gösta Serlachius visited his customers, such as shopkeepers and bakers. He spent his small earnings as a bag agent buying antiques. His funds for acquisitions were not large, and Serlachius tells in his memoirs written in 1928 how even the people at home laughed at the young man’s hobby. 

Serlachius recounts this about acquiring his very first work of art:

“Once I took my mother’s sister Sigrid (…) with me on a visit to an old lady living in Jakobstad, on condition that she would remain silent while I negotiated the deals. Sigrid had looked at the lady’s old things many times before without interest, but when I was buying them, she spurred into action and would have taken them all. I only had 10 marks, but I got the lady’s most beautiful object, the aforementioned portrait of a woman painted in pastel colors. Aunt Sigrid bought the rest, breaking her promise.”

Acquired with confidence in his own taste in art, this Gösta Serlachius’ first art acquisition was a portrait of a young woman by an unknown author, painted approximately in the 1700s. Later, Serlachius used the help of art experts to build up his collection of European old art. He got to know the contemporary artists of his time personally and made it a habit to acquire and commission works from them for his collection and for the buildings he had built in Mänttä, such as Mänttä Church, the head office and Joenniemi Manor. 

The portrait of the young woman is still in the collections of the Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation. The oval-shaped, pretty work is made in pastel on parchment. Pastel works are prone to reacting to light, that is, their colors fade easily. In addition, parchment is very sensitive to changes in conditions such as humidity and temperature. The first work of art in Serlachius’ collection is one of the most fragile in the collection. Therefore, it can only be displayed for very short periods at a time, even then protected in a display case.

Laura Kuurne
Head of collections and exhibitions 

Oval shape portrait of slightly smiling young woman in golden frames.
Unknowns artist, Portrait of a Woman, 18th century, pastel on parchment, Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation. Photograph: Teemu Källi.