Tove Jansson atelier

Life in an artist’s studio

  1. 01Family with an open door
  2. 02The paintings lose their shine
  3. 03The easel in the middle of the floor
  4. 04 Stone full of silver
01

Family with an open door


The walls of the bohemian studio home are covered with paintings by family friends, and the shelves are filled with books of all kinds. Drawing and storytelling float into Tove Jansson’s plays.

As a child, Tove Jansson sits on her mother Signe ‘Ham’ Hammarsten-Jansson’s, lap while she designs banknotes and makes illustrations for magazines. The small family lives in an art nouveau house on Luotsikatu in Helsinki’s Katajanokka district.

To everyone’s surprise, Ham, brought up in Stockholm, has moved to a city where people speak Finnish, and she did so for love – for sculptor Viktor Jansson, ‘Faffan’, whom she met in Paris.  

Ham is responsible for providing a regular source of income for the family. Together with her daughter, she poses on the cover of a feminist magazine, because it is unusual for a woman to be in control of the family economy.

Tove Jansson young child mother

Tove Jansson sits on her mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson’s, Ham’s, lap.

The 1910s is a decade of great change in Finland – a breeding ground for a nation and a language identity of its own. Even though the children grow up in the shadow of war, the atmosphere at the Jansson home is happy. The mother and child sit together in front of a stove, looking at the fire, and the mother tells a story that always begins in the same way: 

‘Once upon a time there was a little girl who was terribly pretty and her mummy liked her so awfully much …’ (Sculptor’s Daughter 1968)

Tove Jansson is the oldest child in the Jansson family, which includes the parents, Tove, and her brothers Per Olov and Lars. The family’s culture is equally Finland–Swedish (a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland) and Swedish.

The siblings grow up with a strong belief that working as a professional artist is the obvious way to spend each day, and the meaning of existence.

Viktor Jansson Signe Hammarsten-Jansson Paris

Viktor Jansson and Signe Hammarsten-Jansson met in Paris.

Astra Signe Hammarsten Jansson Tove Jansson cover

Signe Hammarsten Jansson with Tove on the cover of the magazine Astra in 1922.

Tove Jansson childhood illustration
Tove Jansson drew and illustrated this story in 1921, when she was just seven years old.

Another family central to Tove Jansson live on the other side of the Gulf of Bothnia. At the age of sixteen, she moves to her uncle’s home in Stockholm to begin art studies at the Tekniska skolan (Technical School). She also makes lengthy visits to her grandparents, who live on the Swedish island of Bildö with their large family in a house with a big porch, surrounded by a flourishing garden. Tove Jansson’s uncles relish telling ghost stories, and, like Ham, are adventurous and full of life.


‘Once upon a time there was a little girl who was terribly pretty and her mummy liked her so awfully much …’


At the Technical School the adolescent Tove Jansson matures as an artist. She designs, draws croquis (figure sketches) and develops her love of colour. In her letters, she writes of amusing things but also about homesickness and the sense of responsibility she feels at the time. Tove Jansson has a strong desire to tell stories and create, but not everything is joyful. She wants to help Ham support their family. For Tove Jansson, it is natural to follow in her parents’ footsteps with their complete dedication to artistic work. 

The family move into a newly established Lallukka Artists’ Home in Helsinki’s Töölö district and create a collective of their own. Ham assists Faffan in plaster casting; the brothers start writing, and the family members become each other’s critics. Ham shares her contacts with her daughter and helps her gain a foothold in the newspaper world. Faffan and his colleagues have parties that continue into the small hours.

The connection between livelihood and artistic work is clear from the start. Art is work, an attitude towards life, and a passion.

The walls of the bohemian studio home are covered with paintings by family friends, and the shelves are filled with books of all kinds. Drawing and storytelling float into Tove Jansson’s plays.

As a child, Tove Jansson sits on her mother Signe ‘Ham’ Hammarsten-Jansson’s, lap while she designs banknotes and makes illustrations for magazines. The small family lives in an art nouveau house on Luotsikatu in Helsinki’s Katajanokka district.

To everyone’s surprise, Ham, brought up in Stockholm, has moved to a city where people speak Finnish, and she did so for love – for sculptor Viktor Jansson, ‘Faffan’, whom she met in Paris.  

Ham is responsible for providing a regular source of income for the family. Together with her daughter, she poses on the cover of a feminist magazine, because it is unusual for a woman to be in control of the family economy.

The 1910s is a decade of great change in Finland – a breeding ground for a nation and a language identity of its own. Even though the children grow up in the shadow of war, the atmosphere at the Jansson home is happy. The mother and child sit together in front of a stove, looking at the fire, and the mother tells a story that always begins in the same way: 

‘Once upon a time there was a little girl who was terribly pretty and her mummy liked her so awfully much …’ (Sculptor’s Daughter 1968)

Tove Jansson is the oldest child in the Jansson family, which includes the parents, Tove, and her brothers Per Olov and Lars. The family’s culture is equally Finland–Swedish (a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland) and Swedish.

The siblings grow up with a strong belief that working as a professional artist is the obvious way to spend each day, and the meaning of existence.

Another family central to Tove Jansson live on the other side of the Gulf of Bothnia. At the age of sixteen, she moves to her uncle’s home in Stockholm to begin art studies at the Tekniska skolan (Technical School). She also makes lengthy visits to her grandparents, who live on the Swedish island of Bildö with their large family in a house with a big porch, surrounded by a flourishing garden. Tove Jansson’s uncles relish telling ghost stories, and, like Ham, are adventurous and full of life.


‘Once upon a time there was a little girl who was terribly pretty and her mummy liked her so awfully much …’


At the Technical School the adolescent Tove Jansson matures as an artist. She designs, draws croquis (figure sketches) and develops her love of colour. In her letters, she writes of amusing things but also about homesickness and the sense of responsibility she feels at the time. Tove Jansson has a strong desire to tell stories and create, but not everything is joyful. She wants to help Ham support their family. For Tove Jansson, it is natural to follow in her parents’ footsteps with their complete dedication to artistic work. 

The family move into a newly established Lallukka Artists’ Home in Helsinki’s Töölö district and create a collective of their own. Ham assists Faffan in plaster casting; the brothers start writing, and the family members become each other’s critics. Ham shares her contacts with her daughter and helps her gain a foothold in the newspaper world. Faffan and his colleagues have parties that continue into the small hours.

The connection between livelihood and artistic work is clear from the start. Art is work, an attitude towards life, and a passion.

Interior Tove Jansson childhood home
02

The paintings lose their shine


When the Second World War breaks out and Finland becomes stuck between the Soviet Union and Germany, it is as if the foundations of their existence have become shaken. Differences of political opinion within the family are aggravated and the young Tove Jansson has to reconsider her career as an artist.

The paintings lose their shine; daily life has become narrow, subdued and full of fear.

‘The days are short and grey. Everyone goes round in their own little space, waiting for peace and delivering monologues on the war’ (Letters from Tove ).

Tove Jansson falls out with her family and distances herself from them. In the early 1940s, she paints an oil picture of her family and the presence of war. The painting’s atmosphere is distorted, and she tries to fix it with colour. 

Faffan’s pro-German inclinations and his painful memories of the Finnish Civil War – he fought against the Bolsheviks in 1918 when Tove Jansson was a young child – puts a strain on the whole family. With Per Olov Jansson fighting on the eastern front of the Second World War, the family, particularly Ham, is steeped in worry.

Tove Jansson family painting 1942

Tove Jansson’s painting Family (Familjen) from 1942 depicts the war.

Warfare seems like a game of chess. The family becomes increasingly divided politically. Tove Jansson broods over a woman’s lot; she stands in opposition to her father’s opinions and finds the war empty of meaning. She has fallen in love with the left-wing artist Tapio Tapiovaara, which is not to Faffan’s liking.

Tove Jansson Garm cover
Cover image drawn by Tove Jansson for the magazine Garm in 1943.

‘When men stop killing, then I’ll bear a child – but I know they never will stop’, she writes and vents her frustration in caricatures and politically daring illustrations for the magazine Garm.

To prevent herself from brooding on the grim realities of war, Tove Jansson escapes into fantasy. She longs for warmth and affection and wants to simply drift through the days and be left in peace; she paints still life images, creates escapist fairy tale scenarios, and other motifs that seem to have no connection with the war. 

Tove Jansson is torn between illustrative work, which pays well, and painting, which is her passion. Her paintings become forced, ‘proper’. She is criticised for revealing her background as an illustrator and designer in her paintings, and she is no longer sure if she is painting for her own benefit or for that of others. Finding herself unable to continue her visual work, she begins to concoct the story of a family living in a valley.


‘When men stop killing, then I’ll bear a child – but I know they never will stop’


Her first story, The Moomins and the Great Flood, begins in the remotest corner of a forest. It tells of Moomintroll and his mother, who are looking for the father who has gone missing. For the publishers, Moomintroll is an incomprehensible name, and, in the original Swedish version, the name Mumintrollen (Moomintrolls) is replaced by Småtrollen (Little Trolls). The story about the great flood ends happily in a tall, round house situated in a peaceful valley. It is the starting point for a new world of fillyjonks, hemulens, and toffles.

When the Second World War breaks out and Finland becomes stuck between the Soviet Union and Germany, it is as if the foundations of their existence have become shaken. Differences of political opinion within the family are aggravated and the young Tove Jansson has to reconsider her career as an artist.

The paintings lose their shine; daily life has become narrow, subdued and full of fear.

‘The days are short and grey. Everyone goes round in their own little space, waiting for peace and delivering monologues on the war’ (Letters from Tove ).

Tove Jansson falls out with her family and distances herself from them. In the early 1940s, she paints an oil picture of her family and the presence of war. The painting’s atmosphere is distorted, and she tries to fix it with colour. 

Faffan’s pro-German inclinations and his painful memories of the Finnish Civil War – he fought against the Bolsheviks in 1918 when Tove Jansson was a young child – puts a strain on the whole family. With Per Olov Jansson fighting on the eastern front of the Second World War, the family, particularly Ham, is steeped in worry.

Warfare seems like a game of chess. The family becomes increasingly divided politically. Tove Jansson broods over a woman’s lot; she stands in opposition to her father’s opinions and finds the war empty of meaning. She has fallen in love with the left-wing artist Tapio Tapiovaara, which is not to Faffan’s liking.

‘When men stop killing, then I’ll bear a child – but I know they never will stop’, she writes and vents her frustration in caricatures and politically daring illustrations for the magazine Garm.

To prevent herself from brooding on the grim realities of war, Tove Jansson escapes into fantasy. She longs for warmth and affection and wants to simply drift through the days and be left in peace; she paints still life images, creates escapist fairy tale scenarios, and other motifs that seem to have no connection with the war. 

Tove Jansson is torn between illustrative work, which pays well, and painting, which is her passion. Her paintings become forced, ‘proper’. She is criticised for revealing her background as an illustrator and designer in her paintings, and she is no longer sure if she is painting for her own benefit or for that of others. Finding herself unable to continue her visual work, she begins to concoct the story of a family living in a valley.


‘When men stop killing, then I’ll bear a child – but I know they never will stop’


Her first story, The Moomins and the Great Flood, begins in the remotest corner of a forest. It tells of Moomintroll and his mother, who are looking for the father who has gone missing. For the publishers, Moomintroll is an incomprehensible name, and, in the original Swedish version, the name Mumintrollen (Moomintrolls) is replaced by Småtrollen (Little Trolls). The story about the great flood ends happily in a tall, round house situated in a peaceful valley. It is the starting point for a new world of fillyjonks, hemulens, and toffles.

Tove Jansson atelier
03

The easel in the middle of the floor


In 1945 war in Finland comes to an end, as the country signs an armistice with the allies. German troops are driven out, and Finland retains its fragile autonomy. In Helsinki Tove Jansson moves at last into a turret studio, a new home she can call her own.
Tove Jansson cat photo

Tove Jansson with the cat Psipsina in her studio photographed by Beata Bergström.

The turret studio at Ullanlinnankatu 1 has been badly damaged by bombs but Tove Jansson feels a profound sense of relief at the privacy, refuge and space to work that it offers. The winters are ice cold, and she struggles to pay her rents and debts. Nevertheless, having lived much too close to her family during the war, she can at last be independent.

‘The first time I came into the new studio there was an alarm and the artillery gave me a salute of welcome. I just stood and looked, and was happy. The wind was coming in through the broken windows and chimneys, and big piles of rubble were lying under the cracks in the walls. Twelve windows reaching out to the light and as high as a church. I planted my easel in the middle of the floor, I was utterly happy’.
Note from 1944

A room of her own means the world to the young artist. 

Tove Jansson has a love affair with the philosopher, journalist, and Member of Parliament Atos Wirtanen, a liberal with an inclination for Nietzsche. There is talk of marriage yet she holds back; ‘I see what will happen to my painting if I get married’. 

In the studio, she fosters her independence and artistry beyond the traditional woman’s role. She is nearing thirty years old, and, after the disruptions of war, needs to be free to work and live an authentic life.


‘I planted my easel in the middle of the floor, I was utterly happy’.


 

Tuulikki Pietilä

Tove Jansson’s partner Tuulikki Pietilä was a graphic artist.

In the end, it is not with a man that Tove Jansson lives her life. 

Tove Jansson meets the charismatic theatre director Vivica Bandler and is surprised by how easy and natural it feels to fall in love with a woman. Initially she asserts that it is the person she has fallen in love with, not the sex, but gradually she begins to realise how deeply she is attracted to women. She makes a decision to ‘go over to the ghost side’ (a reference to the secrecy and discretion required at a time when same-sex relationships were illegal). 

Eventually, Tove Jansson finds her way to the defining love of her life, to Tuulikki Pieitiä (known to all as Tooti), a calm, resourceful, graphic designer and art professor who will become her lifelong partner and her most trusted critic. Although neither have children they will retain the strongest bond with all generations of their families. They share an everyday life, enriched with the work they love, with films, intricate model making, and schnapps. 

Throughout her life, Tove Jansson belongs to various families and builds families of her own through her artistry. Tove Jansson’s concept of a family varies and develops constantly; it is a construction in continuous change.

In 1945 war in Finland comes to an end, as the country signs an armistice with the allies. German troops are driven out, and Finland retains its fragile autonomy. In Helsinki Tove Jansson moves at last into a turret studio, a new home she can call her own.

The turret studio at Ullanlinnankatu 1 has been badly damaged by bombs but Tove Jansson feels a profound sense of relief at the privacy, refuge and space to work that it offers. The winters are ice cold, and she struggles to pay her rents and debts. Nevertheless, having lived much too close to her family during the war, she can at last be independent.

‘The first time I came into the new studio there was an alarm and the artillery gave me a salute of welcome. I just stood and looked, and was happy. The wind was coming in through the broken windows and chimneys, and big piles of rubble were lying under the cracks in the walls. Twelve windows reaching out to the light and as high as a church. I planted my easel in the middle of the floor, I was utterly happy’.

A room of her own means the world to the young artist. 

Tove Jansson has a love affair with the philosopher, journalist, and Member of Parliament Atos Wirtanen, a liberal with an inclination for Nietzsche. There is talk of marriage yet she holds back; ‘I see what will happen to my painting if I get married’. 

In the studio, she fosters her independence and artistry beyond the traditional woman’s role. She is nearing thirty years old, and, after the disruptions of war, needs to be free to work and live an authentic life.


‘I planted my easel in the middle of the floor, I was utterly happy’.


In the end, it is not with a man that Tove Jansson lives her life. 

Tove Jansson meets the charismatic theatre director Vivica Bandler and is surprised by how easy and natural it feels to fall in love with a woman. Initially she asserts that it is the person she has fallen in love with, not the sex, but gradually she begins to realise how deeply she is attracted to women. She makes a decision to ‘go over to the ghost side’ (a reference to the secrecy and discretion required at a time when same-sex relationships were illegal). 

Eventually, Tove Jansson finds her way to the defining love of her life, to Tuulikki Pieitilä (known to all as Tooti), a calm, resourceful, graphic designer and art professor who will become her lifelong partner and her most trusted critic. Although neither have children they will retain the strongest bond with all generations of their families. They share an everyday life, enriched with the work they love, with films, intricate model making, and schnapps. 

Throughout her life, Tove Jansson belongs to various families and builds families of her own through her artistry. Tove Jansson’s concept of a family varies and develops constantly; it is a construction in continuous change.

Victor Jansson atelier
04

Stone full of silver


Ten years after the death of her father, in the peaceful summer of 1967, Tove Jansson works on a story she calls Sculptor’s Daughter. She senses the beauty that surrounds her, and her sensations turn into art.

Each year, the Jansson family spend summers together in the Pellinge archipelago 50km east of Helsinki. When the opportunity comes to build a cabin of their own on a stark island on the outer rim of the archipelago, Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä seize it with both hands.

Having written children’s books for decades, Tove Jansson looks back in time and creates a miniature world for adult readers.

Tove Jansson’s first book for adults, Sculptor’s Daughter, carries the reader back to the scenes and intimacies of her own childhood. She uses the fresh and naïve voice of a young narrator and deceptively simple prose, to cast new light on the adult world. In passing she gifts the reader small nuggets of advice about aesthetics and the best way to live an artistic life.

Tove Jansson writes about evenings in a studio in which a table laid for dinner – observed from a bunk bed – turns into a painting. She describes a night scene in the archipelago as an illustration in which all the shades of grey are finally printed accurately. She evokes a family culture where the work of an artist is taken seriously, even revered. Being called a ‘dilettante’ is the worst that can happen, she tells us.

Tove Jansson bust Victor Jansson

Marble bust portraying a young Tove Jansson by Viktor Jansson around 1920.

In one of the book’s chapters, the child narrator is struggling to push home a stone that glints with minerals. She believes it is full of silver. Her efforts and her conviction that the stone contains treasure are a metaphor for an artist toiling away alone on the margins. When the protagonist finally approaches her apartment door on one of the upper floors, the stone slips and plummets, like a meteor, smashing on the ground below. The artist’s work has failed. 

‘I never told anyone how close we had come to being rich’, Tove Jansson writes, ending the scene with a wink of an eye.

Tove Jansson writes about a sculptor father whose resemblance to Faffan is apparent. In one story, a ‘spinster’ intrudes on the family while they are summering on their island and wants to make art using glossy cut-out pictures. Her fussy work disrupts the sculptor’s routines and formality.

‘I didn’t know what to think. The plaster pictures were really the most beautiful things I had ever seen, but they weren’t Art. One couldn’t respect them at all. Actually one should really have despised them. It was a terrible thing to do to make such pictures in Daddy’s studio and, what’s more, while a plaster cast was being made’.


‘I never told anyone how close we had come to being rich’


Tove Jansson observes that the father does not throw the picture away. Instead, he shoves it in the bookcase, and Tove ends up making comparisons between her narrator, the father, and the father’s idea of art.

In life, Faffan used his daughter as a model for his sculptures, just as she uses her memory of him for her art. She allowed herself to be depicted, and she depicts others; for Tove Jansson, it is completely natural and respectful.

Ten years after the death of her father, in the peaceful summer of 1967, Tove Jansson works on a story she calls Sculptor’s Daughter. She senses the beauty that surrounds her, and her sensations turn into art.

Each year, the Jansson family spend summers together in the Pellinge archipelago 50km east of Helsinki. When the opportunity comes to build a cabin of their own on a stark island on the outer rim of the archipelago, Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä seize it with both hands.

Having written children’s books for decades, Tove Jansson looks back in time and creates a miniature world for adult readers.

Tove Jansson’s first book for adults, Sculptor’s Daughter, carries the reader back to the scenes and intimacies of her own childhood. She uses the fresh and naïve voice of a young narrator and deceptively simple prose, to cast new light on the adult world. In passing she gifts the reader small nuggets of advice about aesthetics and the best way to live an artistic life. 

Tove Jansson writes about evenings in a studio in which a table laid for dinner – observed from a bunk bed – turns into a painting. She describes a night scene in the archipelago as an illustration in which all the shades of grey are finally printed accurately. She evokes a family culture where the work of an artist is taken seriously, even revered. Being called a ‘dilettante’ is the worst that can happen, she tells us. 

In one of the book’s chapters, the child narrator is struggling to push home a stone that glints with minerals. She believes it is full of silver. Her efforts and her conviction that the stone contains treasure are a metaphor for an artist toiling away alone on the margins. When the protagonist finally approaches her apartment door on one of the upper floors, the stone slips and plummets, like a meteor, smashing on the ground below. The artist’s work has failed. 

‘I never told anyone how close we had come to being rich’, Tove Jansson writes, ending the scene with a wink of an eye.

Tove Jansson writes about a sculptor father whose resemblance to Faffan is apparent. In one story, a ‘spinster’ intrudes on the family while they are summering on their island and wants to make art using glossy cut-out pictures. Her fussy work disrupts the sculptor’s routines and formality.

‘I didn’t know what to think. The plaster pictures were really the most beautiful things I had ever seen, but they weren’t Art. One couldn’t respect them at all. Actually one should really have despised them. It was a terrible thing to do to make such pictures in Daddy’s studio and, what’s more, while a plaster cast was being made’.


‘I never told anyone how close we had come to being rich’


Tove Jansson observes that the father does not throw the picture away. Instead, he shoves it in the bookcase, and Tove ends up making comparisons between her narrator, the father, and the father’s idea of art.

In life, Faffan used his daughter as a model for his sculptures, just as she uses her memory of him for her art. She allowed herself to be depicted, and she depicts others; for Tove Jansson, it is completely natural and respectful.

Sources & rights

Text

Hanna Ylöstalo, co-edited by Natania Jansz

Sources

Jansson, Tove. Sculptor’s Daughter (1968), translated into English in 1969 by Kingsley Hart (Family with an open door: ‘The Dark’. Stone full of silver: ‘The Stone’, ‘Parties’, ‘The Iceberg’, ‘The Bays’, ‘Jeremiah’, and ‘The Spinster Who Had An Idea’)

Jansson, Tove. The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945), translated into English in 2012 by David McDuff
(The paintings lose their shine)

Antas, Maria. ‘Livet i ateljén var ingen fest,’ SLS Historiska och litteraturhistoriska studier 89 (2014)

Karjalainen, Tuula. Tove Jansson. Work and Love (2014), translated into English by David McDuff

Westin, Boel. Tove Jansson. Life, Art, Words (2014), translated into English by Silvester Mazzarella
(Chapter Five, ‘A Men’s War’, The easel in the middle of the floor, p. 100, From a notebook, September 1944)

Eds. Westin, Boel & Svensson Helen. Letters from Tove (2019), translated into English by Sarah Death
(Family with an open door: Letters to the family 1938–1939. The paintings lose their shine: Letters to Eva Konikoff 1941–1942. The easel in the middle of the floor: Letters to Eva Konikoff 1 November 1941).

Cover for the periodical Astra (1922) about ‘A married woman’s work outside the home’

Image rights

01 © Per Olov Jansson

02–06 Family album, Moomin Characters archives

07 © Tove Jansson

08 Illustration © Tove Jansson

09 © Tove Jansson

10 © Eva Konikoff

11 © Beata Bergström

12 Moomin Characters archives


image-2506