Every artist creates that one piece in their lifetime that becomes synonymous with their name. For Hugo Simberg, it was his 1903 painting titled “The Wounded Angel”. This oil-on-canvas work embodies the primary features of Finnish art and symbolism.
About “The Wounded Angel”
“The Wounded Angel” is all about symbols and hidden meanings. Simberg’s work was usually highly symbolic, however, he refused to publicly attach any meaning to his paintings. He did this so that the audience could freely project their feelings onto his work, resulting in a unique subjective interpretation.
To allow the viewer’s judgment to be completely their own, Simberg did not even reveal the title of the painting when it was first exhibited. Instead, he inserted a long dash where the title was supposed to be written so that the audience was not influenced even by the title of the painting.
The Wounded Angel
The painting is currently at the Ateneum Art Museum, a part of the Ahlström collection. In 2006 the museum took a vote where it was found that “the Wounded Angel” was the most well-liked piece in Finland. In the same year, the painting was named “Finland’s National Painting”. Not much later in 2013, the Nordic Moneta made an attempt to evaluate the painting’s worth and it was found to be the second most important work in Finland.
Almost immediately after the painting was exhibited, Simberg rose to fame and was awarded the State Prize for “The Wounded Angel”. While the painting was completed in 1903, the idea for this composition cultivated in the artist’s mind for at least five years. Some of the earliest signs of “The Wounded Angel” have been found in Simberg’s old sketchbooks from 1898. He also took several photographs of the models and tried various poses, perhaps to get the image right in his mind.
The painting was completed in Simberg’s studio in the summer of 1903 at Niemenlautta. Researchers are of the opinion that some of his last models for the angel included Gertrud and Adrienne. They were the daughters of Karl Magnus Gadd, the town physician of Viipuri.
The scene is set in a scarce landscape with mountains, a waterbody in the distance, and barely any vegetation. Simberg takes us to a part of his hometown, Helsinki. The subjects are passing through Eläintarha park where we may see a glimpse of the Töölönlahti Bay in the back.
At the time when this painting was created, the park was used both for leisure activities and as a common ground for a few charities. The procession seems to be heading toward the Blind Girls’ School and the Home for Cripples located in the same place. It seems as though the girl or the “angel” in the center is a student in the blind school.
Two boys on either side of the angel hold her up on a stretcher with grim expressions on their faces. The girl is visibly wounded with a bandage over her eyes and drops of blood on her wings. She barely holds on to the stretcher with a bunch of snowdrop flowers in her hand.
Analysis of “The Wounded Angel”
The wounded angel evokes feelings of pain, melancholy, and confusion. This theme is in keeping with the artist’s Finnish background. Simberg was born in Finland at a time of incessant distress due to continuous wars. The citizens had endured a long history of blood-shed, with no end in sight. Therefore, the themes of unrest, doom, and death were common in Finnish art pieces.
The angel in the center sits woefully on the stretcher with her head bowed down and eyes bandaged. A streak of blood on her wing reveals that she is hurt, which is probably why she is on a stretcher.
The cloth over the angel’s eyes is reminiscent of Archangel Raguel, the angel of justice and free will. The two boys on either side of the angel holding her up mimic the scale in Raguel’s hand. The artist may be hinting toward some injustice through this reversal of roles. The boys on either side of the angel pose as guardian angels who protect and guide every being.
One of the most striking features is the boy on the right looking sternly in our direction, his eyes fixed at a point beyond the viewer. His gaze is rather confrontational as if he is looking at the person responsible for the angel’s pain.
The boy on the right is dressed in all black as if going to a funeral. At the time when Simberg created this painting, he was suffering from an aggressive brain and lung infection. The procession seen in the painting may be a representation of the artist’s feelings about death.
Her wings roughly resemble the shape of human lungs. The blood on her wings may therefore be an allusion to the spread of infection to the artist’s lungs. The angel is clad in a flowy white dress, with white wings, white flowers in her hand, and a white bandage on her head. While the snowdrop in her hand is a symbol of rejuvenation and rebirth, the color white also relates to surrendering.
Simberg’s “The Wounded Angel” represents his recovery process. The angel’s dress sweeps the path, which may be likened to dragging feet on a difficult path to healing. Her hands tightly grasping the stretcher reveal a constant fight between losing and gaining hope. The fading flowers in the angel’s hand may presage the failure of this healing process and loss of hope.
Hugo Simberg’s “The Wounded Angel” allows for numerous interpretations, each unique to the observer. This is most likely the artist’s goal. Hugo Simberg created two renditions of his famous painting, the second in 1904 on the wall of St. John’s Church, a year after the first.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What does The Wounded Angel symbolize?
The artist never revealed the true meaning of his painting. However, the Wounded Angel was painted when Simberg was recovering from a difficult illness and during a time of political unrest in Finland. The painting, therefore, symbolizes different elements of the artist’s personal suffering and that of the people around him.
Where is The Wounded Angel located?
The Wounded Angel (1903) by Hugo Simberg is located at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki.