“[…] guess where Gallén suggests that I travel. – Yes, to London! […] He thinks that the very morality of English society makes London a better place than Paris. He says that, when he was in Paris a number of years ago, indecency there was downright appalling, and, on the contrary, has not lessened over the years.”
– Letter to his mother, Ebba Maria Simberg, and the rest of his family, 7 September 1895. Hugo Simberg Archive, Finnish National Gallery.
Two cornerstones of a young artist’s development in the late 19th century were studies and free activities abroad. In March 1896, Simberg travelled to London, where he visited museums and galleries, attended two operas and went to the famous Crystal Palace. He liked English applied art in particular. He also thought the British Museum was ‘wonderful’ – particularly the works of Dürer and Holbein and Japanese woodcuts.
Yet the city that stole his heart was Paris. To arrive from a foggy, smoky and dusty London to stylish Paris was quite as delightful as being rid of the flu that he had had in London, Simberg wrote in his diary. He saw all Parisians as artistic. There was something in them that drew one’s attention to the individual and made him or her interesting. Unlike his fellow artists, however, Simberg did not paint appealing impressions of the great metropolis; he expressed and illustrated his inner feelings. The Garden of Death was first conceived of in Paris, while in Fantasia a naked young man looks out over a dark, windy expanse of water with a golden staff in his hand. Next to him rises up the mountainous body of a dead, yellow dragon.
In Italy, Simberg admired the art of early Renaissance masters. He also visited Naples and the Sorrento peninsula and scaled Mount Vesuvius with his artist friends. One particularly enjoyable aspect of the trip was the presence of Ellen Thesleff’s sister, Thyra, with whom Hugo was infatuated.
On his second trip to Italy, Simberg got a surprise. Juhani Aho, whom he met there by accident, told him he had won the State Prize for his painting The Wounded Angel.
“I wandered the memorable streets of Florence […] and finally found myself in a café. I had not sat there very long when I noticed that a gentleman at the next table was staring intently at me. I soon observed that it was [writer] Juhani Aho. […] He showed me the paper he was reading, and told me about a strange thing that had come to pass; just as he was reading the news from the paper about the State Prize being awarded to me (the paper he was reading was Hufvudstadsbladet), he had glanced up and spotted me at the next table.”
– Hugo Simberg in a letter to his father, Niclas Simberg, Florence, 16 May 1904. Hugo Simberg Archive, Finnish National Gallery.
In 1899, Hugo Simberg travelled to Russia to meet his nephew, Carl Simberg, who had attained an important position as railway engineer and was responsible for the building of the railway and road network in the Caucasus. Hugo Simberg was evidently interested in railways and engines – he also depicted them in Tampere in 1906. The next year he took a boat to New York.