Together with Juho Mäkelä and Jalmari Ruokokoski, Tyko Sallinen was one of the first Finnish Modernists to emphasise the power of emotion and the importance of individuality. In only a few years’ time Sallinen became the leading proponent of the younger generation who depicted the Finnish landscape and people with unprecedented candour. The peak of his extensive output coincided with the 1910s.
Sallinen painted the first portrait of his wife Mirri three years prior to his sensational breakthrough in 1912. In January 1909, Sallinen married the young art student Helmi Lydia Vartiainen, whom he nicknamed Mirri. In March, the couple travelled to Paris where they spent nine months on a travel scholarship. Sallinen, who had completed his studies in 1904, was a seasoned traveller; he had lived in Stockholm and Denmark before Paris.
Sallinen had already admired works by Edvard Munch and Toulouse-Lautrec at an exhibition in Helsinki a couple of months prior. But his eyes were finally opened to Modernism, when he saw paintings by Matisse and other Fauvists in Paris. Bewitched by the colours of Kees van Dongen, Sallinen is said to have dressed his wife in a pale rose dress, purchased from a nearby department store, and begun to paint. He then removed all the unnecessary subdued colours from his palette and painted the picture using ultramarine, white and different shades of violet in layers, partly by applying the paint with a palette knife. As was the order of the day, he underlined the two-dimensionality of the surface by painting the model en face and avoiding shading. Sallinen cropped the painting, which had originally been much larger, to portrait size by removing the lower half of the work. The canvas may have been damaged in an attic fire in 1910, which destroyed most of the artist’s early works.
Although this slightly clumsy painting lacks the lively brushwork and bright colours of his later work, it is one of his first experiments in Expressionism and a rough prototype of his famous Mirri pictures. In the next five years Sallinen gave full vent to his anger and contradictory feelings about the female gender in a revealing series of portraits of his wife. The Karelian girl, who at times had been characterized as a lively child of nature, now saw herself through the eyes of her husband. The common denominators in these pictures are the look of mental deficiency in the model’s eyes, the turned-up snout of a nose and the pouting, half-open lips. The conflicts in the relationship soon led to divorce. Mirri died in 1920 at the age of 32. She had become, partly against her will, the most inspiring model of Finnish modern art.