Belgian-English painter, graphic artist and potter, Alfred William Finch was a founding member of the avant-garde Brussels-based group known as Les Vingt (The Twenty). The group, founded in 1883, struggled to reform Belgian nationalistic and narrow-minded art on based on modern French models. Seeing works by the Neo-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac at a Les Vingt exhibition in 1886 marked a turning point for Finch who had started his career as a realist. Captivated by their pointillist technique, Finch applied scientific Neo-Impressionist divisionism, a technique based on optics and the mechanism of vision, to his own work. During the following years, Finch together with Théo von Rysselberghe became the leading Pointillist and colour reformist in Belgium.
Finch, who had grown up in Ostende on the North Sea coast, specialized in landscape painting and liked to paint seascapes in particular. In Breaking Waves at Heyst, one of the principal works of his early output, the artist used the rigid divisionist technique of Seurat and Signac which involved the application of small adjacent dots of colour. Although he painted the work using dozens of pure, often complementary colours, their overall graceful and balanced effect was typical of the artist. The composition, however, lacks Finch’s usual tranquillity and simplicity. The pictorial structure with its foam-crested waves is powerful, almost dramatic, in its dynamism. The work also displays features of Japanese woodcuts and perhaps a decorativeness, which anticipates Art Nouveau.
In the early 1890s, Finch had to come to terms with the fact that he could not make a living by painting. He became more and more interested in pottery and gave up painting altogether in 1893. At that time the appreciation of applied arts was growing in Europe and Finland, and it was in his capacity as potter that Finch came to Finland in 1897 to head the ceramics department of the Porvoo-based Iris factory which was owned by the Swede, Louis Sparre. After the factory closed in 1902, Finch moved to Helsinki where he settled down to live for the rest of his life. His role as a precursor, teacher of pottery and proponent of modern European artistic trends in Finland was significant. He held studio exhibitions of his own work annually, took part in joint showings and was a founder member of Septem, a group committed to the pure palette, together with Magnus Enckell and Verner Thomé. At the beginning of the century Finch took up painting again. He abandoned his earlier divisionism and worked with freer broader brushstrokes. Despite the changes he remained faithful to the bright colours of his youth and continued to search for objectivity. From 1905 onwards, after his wife and children had moved to Twickenham near London, Finch visited his family in England at least once a year. The Sigurd Frosterus collection has several vividly painted landscape studies from this Twickenham as well as a painting of the rugged chalk cliffs of Dover whose pale colouring is exceptional in Finch’s work. The Frosterus collection also has a monumental seascape painted on Suursaari Island where Finch worked together with Verner Thomé in the scorching summer of 1912. Almost garish in its contrasting colours, this painting aroused a great deal of attention when it was exhibited together with 33 other works at a solo exhibition in Paris in 1912. Critics placed Finch on a par with his teacher Signac, but regretted his remote northern place of residence.