Robert Ekman – Bridal Sauna


Robert Wilhelm Ekman, Bridal Sauna, before 1866

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 next life stage, and her symbolically giving up her former life.

The Finns decorator the bridal sauna with straws or twigs from leaf trees, and the boards were covered with clean sheets. The bride’s friends often served as bath assistants. Hovewer, in Robert Wilhelm Ekman’s painting she has chosen an elderly woman for the task.

In Robert Wilhelm Ekman’s work, Finnish sauna culture has received an antiquitizing interpretation. The young bride is posing in the centre of the painting. She is 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. At the same time the light that is falling from the left side beautifully emphasises 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. For the significance of the work, however, it is important. Thanks to the vihta, the contemporaries of the artist could understand that instead of representing Venus, this antique classical beauty represents a Finnish peasant woman.

Why did Ekman paint as he did? Because the art education of his time restrained him. On the other hand, the established ways of producing pictures determined his views. Ekman belonged to a generation of artists whose work aspired to regularity. This lead 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.

Suvi-Mari Eteläinen

Robert Wilhelm Ekman, Bridal Sauna, before 1866, oil on panel. Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation
Robert Wilhelm Ekman, Bridal Sauna, before 1866, oil on panel. Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation.