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Rosalie Alver – an unknown artist deserving attention

Jüri Hain (4/2019)

Jüri Hain discusses a woman artist, who has been written into history in Finland, but is yet to be discovered in her homeland.



It is only natural that when we talk about the leading masters and classics of 20th-century Estonian art, we are also curious about those who guided them on their path, their teachers. Among them, Rosalie Alver (1885–1959).

When I asked Märt Laarman (1896–1979) about this in 1969, his first response was: "If I'm serious about your question, I must admit that I never received any kind of basic art education." After a moment, though, he continued: "But there are a few people who encouraged my budding interest in drawing. First of them was Rosalie Alver, my German teacher at the Otepää lower secondary school. She was an art enthusiast and had taken courses taught by Rudolf Lepik [1881–1918] and learned to draw a little garden house or gazebo there. So this is what she taught us, three schoolboys, who seemed interested in that sort of thing. There must have been something in her teaching because among the three were me and also Ferdi Sannamees [1895–1963]. At the time, I was most impressed by the price of the drawing paper – it cost a quarter of rouble, which to me, a schoolboy, was a fortune."1

He later specified that the drawing lessons began in 1911 before Christmas and they finished by spring and also named the third boy, Oktavius Pettai (1881–1918), who did not become an artist but was a good man nevertheless.2 The activities of Rudolf Lepik, a drawing teacher, theatre artist and initiator of drawing courses, especially when it comes to the latter, have been described briefly by Rein Loodus.3 The school that brought together an art loving German teacher and the three boys she noticed as having artistic talents was then officially called the Second Level Private School of the Nuustaku School Society, because until 1922 the town of Otepää was called Nuustaku.




By the way, there is a misconception about the school that has been going around for more than a century: the school has been labelled as the first Estonian-language lower secondary school in Estonia. A lot was done to perpetuate this misconception and not only in writing. For example, on 9 October 2007, the newspaper Lõuna-Eesti Postimees published a photo reportage that included the following printed statement: "The first ever Estonian language rural secondary school, Otepää Lower Secondary School celebrated its 100th anniversary with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Mrs Evelin Ilves present" and "[---] last year a commemorative plaque was placed on the wall of the restored school house, claiming "In this house operated the first Estonian-language rural secondary school (1907).""4

Unfortunately, however, declaring the Nuustaku school the first Estonian-language rural lower secondary school is not factual. As proof, let the following paragraph from research done on the history of Estonian educational societies, also touching on the question of the Nuustaku Lower Secondary School, convince the reader in this: "The question of the language of teaching was acute. When the school was founded, the members of the society, who supported Estonian culture but still wanted their children to continue their studies in state secondary schools, prevailed. So the decision to teach in Russian was made. However, after three years it was decided that two-language education would be more appropriate – first year would be taught fully in Estonian, second year partly in Estonian, partly in Russian, and third and fourth year in Russian. This was an important step towards Estonian-language education. Although, since the question was never fully resolved, it became the subject of significant critique in the movement of educational societies."5




But let us return to 1911. Märt Laarman and Ferdi Sannamees have thus left us feeling sympathetic towards their German teacher, interested in art and teaching art. This was the limit of their knowledge regarding Rosalie Alver. But her desire for self-improvement did not end with the quick visit to Rudolf Lepik's classes and took a much more serious direction in 1912 when she began studying art in Helsinki.

Here, we must be careful when it comes to naming the school, as there has not been much consistency whenever the institution has been written about in Estonian. Namely, when the Art Society of Finland was established in 1846 and two years later also the society's drawing school, the Estonian art scene was not organised enough to create contacts based on that. By 1857, a now famous building designed by the architect Theodor Höijer was completed in the city centre of Helsinki and named the Ateneum, although the well-known art school operating in the same building was named the Ateneum only in 1939 and until then several art schools were simultaneously housed in the building. It was one of these schools, called Suomen Taideyhdistyksen Helsingin Piirustuskoulu in Finnish (drawing school of the Art Society of Finland) that Rosalie Alver enrolled in.

For example, in his book "Art Life in Estonia I" Ervin Pütsep says about Juuli Suits, who had graduated from the same school two years earlier: "Applied artist Juuli Suits (Tartu 1884–Tallinn 1957) also studied at the Ateneum."6 "The Biographical Lexicon of Estonian Art and Architecture" notes that Suits studied at the school of the Art Society of Finland.7 But Rosalie Alver is not even mentioned in most of the art historical overviews of the first half of the 20th century, despite the fact the she was one of the most successful Estonians to have studied in that school.

The latter statement might need verification and one way of doing that is to base the claim on the school's archive. In every art school thousands of drawings and drafts are made, the great majority of which disappears into the depths of the world (to be frank, they are recycled). When it comes to the Helsinki drawing school, they have been extremely selective about collecting an archive of outstanding student work. And even the works that are being preserved have been divided into two: a mass that is being kept and archived so that their originals generally cannot be seen and a truly exclusive selection available to visitors and located in the main building.

And among the latter selection, a design of a coffee set by Rosalie Alver especially stands out. In this select company, so to say, we also see an example of Juuli Suits' work – a watercolour depicting a water jug. And even though Juuli Suits is one of our nation's great artists and Rosalie Alver's name has been almost completely unknown, it can be said that, when looking at the Finnish best-of selection, the "unknown's" work makes a stronger impression.



Rosalie Alver
A design of a coffee set
Student work at the drawing school of the Art
Society of Finland in Helsinki






After graduating from the drawing school, the former German teacher qualified as a drawing teacher, with her most notable years spent at the Viljandi Estonian Educational Society's Girls' Gymnasium from 1919 to 1925. There, among her colleagues was the painter Villem Ormisson (1892–1941), who, since 1926 also became a painting teacher at Pallas and whom Rosalie Alver had already met in 1911 in art courses led by Rudolf Lepik. After leaving Viljandi, Rosalie Alver worked in several small rural schools that only had a small number of teachers who all had to teach classes according to the comprehensive school's curriculum, so developing drawing skills could not have been a significant part of the studies.

Nevertheless, as someone who guided Märt Laarman and Ferdi Sannamees towards art, Rosalie Alver deserves recognition even today. And the fact that she was one of the most talented graduates of the drawing school of the Art Society of Finland in 1915 should also be part of the factology of our art history.


1 Jüri Hain, Usutlusi kunstnikega. Tallinn: Arlekiin, 1995, p 10.

2 Heini Paas, Ferdi Sannamees, 1895–1963. Tallinn: Kunst, 1974, p 10.

3 Rein Loodus, Pärnu kunstilinnana. – Kunstiteadus. Kunstikriitika 5. Tallinn: Eesti NSV Kunstnike Liidu kunstiteadlaste sektsioon, 1983, pp 42–43.

4 Marika Männik, Otepääl täitus 100 aastat eestikeelset keskharidust maal. – Lõuna-Eesti Postimees 9. X 2007.

5 Feliks Kinkar, Eesti haridusseltside ajaloost. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, 1996, p 129.

6 Ervin Pütsep, Kunstielu Eestimaal I. Stockholm: Department of Baltic Studies at the Stockholm University, 1991, p 228.

7 Eesti Kunsti ja Arhitektuuri Biograafiline Leksikon (EKABL). Tallinn: Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus, 1996, p 495.



Jüri Hain is one of the most prominent experts on printmaking and art history in Estonia or, as he himself has said, "art historian by education and factologist by calling."

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