Johann Köler was born on 8 March 1826, in Vastemõisa Parish, Viljandi County. The artist’s education began in Viljandi and continued in Cēsis, Latvia, where he studied painting. Köler went on to study painting at the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts. He graduated from the academy in 1855 with the work Hercules Brings Cerberus from the Gates of Hell, for which he received a small gold medal and a diploma in historical painting. The artist lived most of his life in St Petersburg, where he worked as an art teacher for the Czar's daughter and in the school of the Society for the Promotion of Arts. In 1861, Johann Köler became an academician at the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts. He also worked as a teacher at the academy. In 1867, he became a professor ( Koler).

From 1859, Köler began to sign his works ‘J. Köler, Viljandi’. This was the artist’s way of emphasising his origins. Johann Köler is one of the founders of national art in Estonia. Although he was born into a poor cotter family, he rose to a high position at the court of the Russian Czar. Because he had connections at court, he mediated letters from peasants to the Czar. He was also the head of the executive committee of the Estonian Alexander School (Aleksandrikool). While in Estonia, Köler painted landscapes and folk characters and interacted with figures of the national movement. He exhibited his works in various foreign countries. Johann Köler died on 22 April 1899, in St Petersburg, and is buried in Suure-Jaani cemetery (

The sketch View from the Viljandi castle ruins to the lake was completed a year after a long trip to Europe, which at the time was a compulsory part of becoming an artist. In Italy, Johann Köler studied drawing and painting in the countryside. This sketch is from one of the artist’s three surviving sketchbooks, the only one featuring Viljandi (Vallikivi, 2020).

Johann Köler (1826-1899)
View from the Viljandi castle ruins to the lake, 1863. Pencil, paper. 13.2 x 19.4 cm.
The Art Museum of Estonia

KEYWORDS: the first professional artist of Estonian origin, academic painter.