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Fredrik Cygnaeus

Born April 1, 1807, Hämeenlinna. Died February 7, 1881, Helsinki.

Master of Arts, Imperial Alexander University, 1832

Vice-rector, Imperial Alexander  University, 1865-66
Dean, Division for History and Philology, Imperial Alexander University, 1856-67
Professor of Aesthetics and Modern Finnish Literature, Imperial Alexander University, 1854-67
Docent, History, 1839-54, acting Professor, Imperial Alexander University, 1848-53
Rector, Helsingin yläalkeiskoulu (Helsinki secondary school), 1839-52
Teacher, political and civic studies, Hamina military cadet school, 1833-37

President, Finnish Art Society, 1863-78
'Curator', Ostrobothnian student ‘nation’, 1838-49

Counsellor of State, 1867
Knight, Order of the Polar Star, 1867
Order of Merit (for service to the state), 1865
Honorary Doctor of Philosophy, Imperial Alexander University, 1860
Knight (2nd class), Order of St Stanislaus, 1856
Memorial Plaque, Hämeenlinna, 1948
Postage stamp, 1948

Photo: Helsingin yliopistomuseo / Timo Huvilinna
Written by Tomas Sjöblom
Translated by John Calton

Patron of the arts

Fredrik Cygnaeus was one of the most knowledgeable connoisseurs of the arts in nineteenth-century Finland. He was an expert in the literary, theatrical and pictorial arts, providing support for artists both financial and educational.

Cygnaeus closely followed the latest trends in European art and was particularly keen on the new artistic impulses brought in by young Finnish artists. with his excellent connections he helped the likes of Aleksis Kivi to secure grants and recognition.

According to Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä, Cygnaeus was well aware of his worth as a patron of the arts. He treated young artists as “Olympian greats”, and received young artists in much the same way as suitors at the royal court. And his lifestyle certainly raised eyebrows. He squandered money and was frequent in a tight spot financially, but somehow managed to pay his way as well as support young artists and build up a considerable art collection. He placed his collection in a villa he had built in the Kaivopuisto park on the southern Helsinki peninsula.

Cygnaeus left his collection to the Finnish nation. The state took on the task of curating the collection and the Cygnaeus Gallery was opened to the public in 1882. More works were added later, and the gallery was accessible until 2014. It was closed due to cuts in funding to the National Board of Antiquities.

Fredrik Cygnaeus' villa in Kaivopuisto, depicted by the painter Johan Knutson in the 1870's. Image: Cygnaeus Gallery / Johan Knutson.​
Fredrik Cygnaeus' villa in Kaivopuisto, depicted by the painter Johan Knutson in the 1870's. Image: Cygnaeus Gallery / Johan Knutson.​

Quite apart from his support for artists, Cygnaeus used his connections for the benefit of the University too. Together with J.V. Snellman he was behind the plans to build the Student House in Mannerheim street (formerly Heikintie). Cygnaeus was on the board of the Finnish Art Society from 1849 and chaired the board between 1863 and 1878. During this period he was highly influential in questions relating to art, particularly acquisitions made by the Society. And from the 1850s he spoke out in support of the establishment of an art academy.


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