Akseli Gallen-Kallela, to whom the Musée d'Orsay devoted an exhibition in 2012, is Finland's major artist, the only one to have achieved truly international recognition in his lifetime, one of the essential authors of a Finnish national culture in the midst of a revival, at a time of struggle for an independence gained from Russia in 1917.
Great Black Woodpeckeris one of his masterpieces, the first painting by the painter to enter the collections of the Musée d'Orsay and the French public collections, after the acquisition of a carpet made from his drawings by the museum in 2006. This painting comes to represent an essential painter of the late nineteenthcentury, who has long and often stayed in Paris, as he comes to enrich the panorama of foreign schools and testify to their vitality, long ignored in France.
After a first apprenticeship in Helsinki, Gallen-Kallela in fact trained in Paris, at the Académie Julian (1884-1889) and in Cormon's studio (1887-1889), while returning to Finland during the long summer season, which prevented him from really taking root in the Parisian art scene. In Paris, he later contributed to the decoration of the Finnish pavilion at the 1900 Universal Exhibition. Landscape played a decisive role throughout Gallen-Kallela’s career, bearing the Finnish cultural identity, in the same way as the legends of the Kalevala or folk costumes or crafts.
It was in the summer of 1892, in search of a residence in the heart of Finland, in North Karelia, that Gallen-Kallela stayed along the shores of Lake Paanajärvi. There he painted his first “pure” landscapes, free of any figure – a direct expression of a Finnish soul nourished by nature, its great spaces of forests and lakes.
Palokärki / Great Black Woodpeckeris painted in this quest for finding one’s roots. With the presence of the bird, a “fire crest” in Finnish, the painter invests the landscape with an allegorical dimension, that of man crying out his solitude, according to his own words. A more political interpretation could be made of the motif, that of a country fighting against the Russian occupier, alone in its adversity. Gallen-Kallela first makes a large gouache drawing of the subject, which he was not satisfied with, tearing it up. The following winter, his wife gathered and glued the pieces onto a canvas, and the artist reconsidered his judgment (Helsinki, National Gallery of Finland). He then undertook to make the present version in oil, in the same imposing format (57 ⅙ x 35 ¹³/₁₆ in. - 145 x 91 cm), which he completed in 1894.
In 1895, the artist finally found the perfect location, on the shores of Lake Ruovesi, 200 km north of Helsinki, and built a large house-studio in a style that was both traditional in inspiration and decoration, and yet mixed with modernist Art Nouveau elements, which he named Kalela. He would further identify himself with the site by adding the latter name to his (Swedish) surname of Gallen in 1907.
This acquisition was made with the support of the artist's family, as a tribute to Jorma, Pirkko and Aivi Gallen-Kallela.