Sam Vanni (born Samuel Besprosvanni) is perhaps the most prominent exponent of Finnish abstract art. In 1952, he painted his first fully non-figurative work, the style which he was to retain until the day he died. The transition to the new idiom was not sudden but was preceded by more than twenty years of development.
Sam Vanni, who had studied art at the School of the Fine Arts Association of Finland and Wäinö Aaltonen’s studio, began by painting picturesque figurative works, which call to mind both Impressionism and Expressionism. In temperament he was not the prototypal Finnish artist. He had been interested in Formalism, and particularly in colours, from the very beginning of his career. Even before his trip to Paris his paintings displayed colourist traits from the French school as pioneered by Matisse and Bonnard. His themes, landscapes, still-lifes and portraits were in themselves traditional but the way he worked was unconventional and reflected the artist’s search for a new expression.
As early as 1935, Sam Vanni met Tove Jansson, the future writer of the Moomin books, who at the time was an illustrator and a cartoonist like her mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson. As a painter Jansson was still a novice. The two artists became friends and often worked together in Vanni’s studio. Jansson also frequently sat as model for Vanni. Later she has recollected how her more experienced and often strictly critical friend tried to open her eyes to the problem of light and colour in art. Sam Vanni’s instructions to his colleague, who was five years his junior, proved decisive. It is no wonder that the output of the two artists from these years have so many points of contact.
Sam Vanni painted this full-length, en face portrait of Tove Jansson in 1940. The model is holding a pen and notepad, the attributes of the draughtsman, in her lap. The artist’s equipment to the right refers to the environment in which the painting was born. The soft light on the forehead, shoulders and the arms comes directly from above and gives the figure a rounded three-dimensional quality. The dominating cold blues and violets have been brushed on in deliciously thick layers. As a subtle contrast the artist has coloured the floor and the pot on the table in shades of pink, familiar from many of Matisse’s paintings, which Vanni also favoured in his later works.