Vilhelms Purvītis was Latvia's most famous and well-respected landscape painter, creating a school of nature painting. He founded the Latvian Academy of Art and served as its first rector; he was the director of the Riga City Museum of Art, and he organised Latvian art exhibitions abroad. These varied activities made him one of Latvia's most distinguished 20th-century personalities.

Academy of Art in St. Petersburg

The eldest child of Juris and Anna Purvītis, he was born on the 3rd of March 1872 on the Jauzi homestead in Jaunpils, now known as Zaube. The Jauzi farm proved insufficient to support the family and he moved in 1887 with his parents, two sisters and two brothers to Klastici in Belarus, where his father rented a windmill. At school he met the drawing teacher Karl Schmid, who had studied at the Saint Petersburg Academy of Art. Schmid saw the talent of the young Vilhelms and urged him to go to the same Academy. He did so and Vilhelms never forgot the experience, which set his direction for the future.

Letse studenten in 1897

At the age of 26 he travelled to Paris with Janis Rosenthals and Janis Valters. However French art did not inspire lasting interest in the young artist and he went on to Munich, where there was a major exhibition of Russian and Finnish art had been organised by Sergey Dhiaghilev. Subsequently he participated many times in the Mir Iskusstva exhibitions organised by Dhiaghilev.

In 1870, with the permission of the tsar's government, Baltic Germans in Riga established an arts promotion organisation called Kunstverein. It staged regular exhibitions, showing not only the work of local painters, but also that of artists from Russia and Germany - including the peredvizhniki artists Ivan Kramskoy, Arhip Kunji, Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin and Nicolai Ge. In 1895 Kunstverein organised a 25th anniversary show which attracted work from leading artists in the German lands - Arnold Böcklin, Max Klinger, Max Liebermann, Adolf Menzel, Franz Von Stuck and others. In 1898 Kunstverein moved to new premises, where it could open an art salon. Purvītis and Valters were asked to contribute works to the opening exhibition at the salon.

At the opening of the salon, Purvītis and Valters showed no fewer then 70 paintings and studies, and in terms of creative and professional development, they were without peer. Purvītis made a great impression in Riga despite the fact that his new style of painting was quite removed from accepted academic traditions and did not win unanimous praise. Many people thought the paintings were too 'modern' and difficult to understand. To those who were accustomed to the romantic idealism that was promoted among landscape artists by the Düsseldorf Academy - traditions that were beautifully represented in Latvia by Julius Feders - or else fond of the syrupy landscapes of the Riga painter Julius Klever, Purvītis' humble motives and easy painting manner probably seemed daring or even barbaric.

Rosenthals denounced Riga's local government and its newspapers because, he said, these 'art specialists' had given their 'garbage temple' to 'a painter who satisfies the crowds as does Aivanovski.' Referring to Purvītis however, he wrote, 'Right among them, however, is an artist who truly has a gift from God, who has been recognised as the greatest among modern Russian landscape artists, whose name is mentioned by Europe's best painters with deep respect, who is a Latvian and who is for the first time showing his work in his own land. You would think at least that the Latvians would honour this as a rare and noble event, but nothing of the sort - they have hardly noticed.'

In Paris, Munich, Lyon, Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, and Hanover Purvītis participated in many exhibitions and won prizes and awards in the years 1900, 1901 and 1902.

The 1905 revolution arrived with demonstrations, the burning of baronial estates and punitive expeditions in response. People rejoiced at a manifesto from the tsar which promised a constitution and civic freedoms. The era of the revolution marked a true turning point in attitudes toward the collapsing authority of the German nobility and that part of Latvian society, which was oriented toward German traditions. Janis Rosenthals sagned a petition that the poet Rainis had written to present the demands of the Latvian intelligentsia for civic rights in Latvia. Purvītis and Janis Valters refused to sign the document, arguing that it was aimed against the main clients of Latvian artists - the German nobility. Since he did not have a salaried job and was completely dependent on the benefaction of his clients, eventually he was forced to take employment as a drawing teacher at the Dome School of Knighthood and the Peter I school in Revel (Tallinn).

In 1909 Riga City Council asked Purvītis to become the director of the City School of Art and this marked a significant turning point in art education in Latvia. In 1913 he started to think seriously about the establishment of an institution of higher artistic education in Riga but World War I put a temporary end to this idea.

Impressed by Purvītis international fame the Soviet Baltic government in 1919 appointed him to run the Riga City Museum of Art, which had been established in 1905. The fulfilment of Purvītis' long standing dream about a Latvian Art Academy reached culmination on august 20, 1919, when the Cabinet of Ministers issued decrees on the founding of the academy and on the appointment of Purvītis as its rector.

On 6 February 1921, at the Riga City Museum of Art Vilhelms Purvītis celebrated the 25th anniversary of the date on which he had participated in his first exhibition, 'The Salon of the Rejected', in St. Petersburg. He was congratulated by groups of artists, musicians, newspapers, and various associations and organisations. The minister of education presented Purvītis with a Culture Foundation prize of 25.000 roubles, the first time that a Latvian government had presented a cash prize to an artist. The president of the Constitutional Convention, Janas Cakste, and the prime minister of Latvia, Karlis Ulmanis, sent their greetings, as did Latvia's ambassadors in other countries, as well as the Russian landscape painter Igor Grabar.
The distinguished poet Rainis dedicated the following words to Purvītis:

Great master! On your day of honour you are greeted by the whole Latvian nation, which looks back with pride at the man who founded our national painting and is its greatest master. You, eternally growing, do not look back. You always go forward.
And now your next goal - to give us an Academy of Art beside the Museum of Art. Beyond that you place your further goals for eternity, and even if your flesh should fail with the goals not reached, your spirit will reach them. Art is life and happiness - you happy man.

In 1944, perhaps under German pressure, he fled the country with his wife and adopted daughter Marion. The trip was too much of a strain and he died on 14th January 1945 in Bad Nauheim. Thus Vilhelms Purvītis did not experience the end of World War II, but was spared the shock of having most of his life's work disappear somewhere in Europe. Twenty crates of paintings were to travel by sea to Königsberg, but the shipment never reached its destination. Several hundred paintings disappeared without trace. The loss was enormous and remains a mystery to this day.

Vilhelms Purvītis presents us with his own unique life story. This simple farmer's son, who sensed but did not know that there is such a thing as art, decided to pursue art with all of his spiritual and physical power, reaching the mountain tops of the art world and becoming an undisputed authority in Latvian culture. When he came home after his studies, he probably did not even realise that he was arriving as a prophet of modern art. Nevertheless he was fully aware of his mission to educate the Latvian nation and to work on its behalf. Through ceaseless work and great personal achievement, Vilhelms Purvītis encouraged the self-esteem of the new and growing Latvian nation, and with his art, he brought the name of his people to European attention.

Dace Lamberga




Vecjauži foundation

Vecjauži birthplace

Vilhelms Purvītis 



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