Flora Day, Eero Järnefelt’s sketch for a mural

It is May. Spring-green foliage curves round to frame a scene in a park. The atmosphere is tense, the adults and children have a concentrated look on their faces. A man dressed in black, Fredrik Cygnaeus, is about to step down from the rostrum and the eyes of his audience are following him. Clear pastel colours create an impression of the air shimmering.

Eero Järnefelt’s pastel work depicts people in a park. Cygnaeus is on the right-hand side. There are listeners in the middle and on the left-hand side. There are birches in the background.
Eero Järnefelt: Flora Day, sketch, undated, pastel on paper, 83cm x 73cm, University of Helsinki. Photo: Helsinki University Museum / Timo Huvilinna.

Eero Järnefelt’s pastel work, Flora Day, is part of the University of Helsinki art collection. The work is a sketch for a mural that Järnefelt painted in the Great Hall of the University’s Main Building. The sketch is one section of a diptych mural. The mural itself, oil painting on canvas, was destroyed during the 1944 air raids, when the University’s Main Building was hit several times by incendiary bombs. At the same time, Albert Edelfelt’s paintings in the Great Hall were destroyed. Copies of Edelfelt’s paintings were commissioned after the war, but not of Järnefelt’s works. The original paintings could have been saved, since they were oil paintings hung on the walls. Unfortunately, when disaster struck, it was believed that they had been painted directly on the walls and it was not understood that they could be saved.

The first performance of the Finnish national anthem

On Flora Day, 13 May 1848, students of the University of Helsinki, led by Fredrik Cygnaeus, arranged a spring celebration on Kumtähti field in Toukola, Helsinki. This was the first time in 12 years that the Flora Day celebration had been organised. The 1848 celebration is historic, since it marked the first performance of “Vårt Land” (Swedish, meaning “our land”), rousing the national spirit. It later became the national anthem of Finland. It was translated into Finnish by Paavo Cajander a bit later, in the 1910s.

Approximately 300 students and 200 invited guests participated in the Flora Day celebration. Speeches were given throughout the day, but the most famous orator was Fredrik Cygnaeus himself. Järnefelt depicts the moment when Cygnaeus is descending from the rostrum after having delivered his speech. Among the audience is, among others, Zacharias Topelius. The guests seem impressed and the atmosphere is somewhat tense, even though – or maybe because – the famous speech has just been delivered.

Unfortunately, Cygnaus’ speech entitled “Finlands namn” (“Finland’s name”) has not been preserved for future generations. However, Zacharias Topelius’ poem of the same name relates the events of that famous Flora Day.

Still today, students gather to celebrate Flora Day on Kumtähti field. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the “Maamme” anthem, a monument designed together by sculptor Viktor Jansson and architect Erik Bryggman was erected on the site.

The birth of the murals in the Great Hall of the University’s Main Building

Decorating the Great Hall with murals depicting the history of the University had been suggested as early as 1863 by Professor Nils Gyldén. However, the project failed to get off the ground. In March 1890, University Rector Thiodolf Rein reintroduced the idea and proposed to the University Senate that murals be commissioned for the Great Hall on the occasion of the University’s 250th anniversary. “There can hardly be a more beautiful manner in which a university can show the people that it knows its responsibility as a patron not only of sciences but also fine arts.” The idea took a long time to come to fruition. The plan was to commission a three-part painting on top of the main entrance to the Great Hall and two-part paintings on both side walls.

However, the planned 250th anniversary festivities were cancelled and the money thus saved could be used to cover the expenses of a competition. Artists Albert Edelfelt, Axel Gallén and Eero Järnefelt were found to be behind the pseudonyms of the winning proposals. Edefelt was tasked with providing the painting on top of the main entrance, which was completed in 1905. The subject matter was the inaugural procession of the Academy of Turku. Edelfelt passed away soon after the painting was completed. The paintings on the side walls took longer to appear.

In the early 1900s, Järnefelt worked as a part-time drawing master of the University’s Art Room. His sketch depicting the Aurora Society was approved to be painted in the Great Hall in April 1913. The painting was completed on the south wall of the Great Hall in 1916. The north wall continued to be reserved for Akseli Gallen-Kallela. However, Viktor Hoving, a businessman, promised to pay for the third mural, provided it was painted by Järnefelt instead of Gallen-Kallela. The situation was awkward for Järnefelt and a shock to Gallen-Kallela, but Hoving’s proposal was accepted. Järnefelt’s second mural, a depiction of the Flora Day celebration, was completed in 1920.

An old photograph of the original Flora Day paintings in the University’s Great Hall. The paintings are high on the wall, in the front, stacked chairs.
Newly completed Flora Day paintings in the University’s Great Hall. Photo: Harald Rosenberg, 1920. Photo: City Museum of Helsinki.

The birth of the painting

After having been tasked with providing the paintings, Järnefelt sketched the motifs numerous times. Both the Aurora Society and Flora Day sketches were drawn largely in the artist’s home Suviranta, on the shores of Tuusulanjärvi lake.

Järnefelt’s daughter Sara described it as follows:

“The sketches for the Flora Day painting were created mostly in the Suviranta garden. A rostrum had been built on the grass among birches, and friends and strangers posed there. Papa managed to get two soldiers to stay with us for several weeks by calling the commandant of the Hyrylä garrison, who posted the soldiers with us. I believe they were very happy standing there in their blue and violet tailcoats knowing that their fellow soldiers were sweating under the hot summer sun in the drill field.”

Järnefelt also used family members and acquaintances as models, as he did with many other works of his. The models included Järnefelt’s sister Aino Sibelius’ son-in-law Jussi Snellman and artist Topi Vikstedt.

Järnefelt’s sketches for the Great Hall of the University’s Main Building were displayed in Hörhammer’s art salon in September 1916. Especially the sketches for the Aurora Society painting aroused a great deal of excitement. The scenes, perhaps somewhat theatrical for modern tastes, were embraced by his contemporaries, since it was expected that depictions of the great moments in Finnish history should be sublime. In addition to the University’s art collection, Flora Day sketches are preserved in the Villa Gyllenberg museum featuring both the Flora Day and the Aurora Society sketches.

Anna Luhtala, Curator

Translation: University of Helsinki Language Services.


“Fredrik Cygnaeus – the Chief Architect of Flora Day”, on the 375 humanists website (https://375humanistia.helsinki.fi/en/fredrik-cygnaeus/the-chief-architect-of-flora-day, retrieved 20 March 2020).

Heinämies, Kati [undated]. “Juhlasalin seinämaalaukset” (“Murals of the Great Hall”). Helsinki University Museum website (https://www.helsinki.fi/sites/default/files/atoms/files/juhlasalin_seinamaalaukset_2.pdf). retrieved 20 March 2020.

Klinge, Matti: Cygnaeus, Fredrik. The website of the National Biography of Finland. Studia Biographica 4. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 1997– (retrieved 20 March 2020) Permanent identifier of the publication URN:NBN:fi-fe20051410; Permanent identifier of the article http://urn.fi/urn:nbn:fi:sks-kbg-003175

Lindqvist, Leena 2002. “Taiteilijan tiellä”, in Taiteilijan tiellä – Eero Järnefelt 1863–1937, ed. Leena Lindqvist, 2002. Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava, pp. 9–148.

Monument commemorating the Finnish national anthem (https://www.hamhelsinki.fi/en/sculpture/maamme-laulun-muistomerkki-erik-bryggman-viktor-jansson, retrieved 14 April 2020)

J. L. Runeberg website (http://www.runeberg.net, retrieved 20 March 2020).

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