Taken together the following four lots constitute the most important group of works by Helene Schjerfbeck to appear together at auction. From one of her earliest works to one of the last, they chart the female artist’s career from her earliest beginnings as a young student in Helsinki influenced by the Naturalist style of Jules Bastien Lepage, through her years of maturity in which she forged an independent path towards a highly personal and experimental form of modernism.
Schjerfbeck’s move to Paris in Autumn 1880 and subsequent travels acted as the catalyst in the development of her modernist aesthetic. As a woman in Paris Schjerfbeck was restricted to training in women-only institutions. Early in the following year she entered the académie Colarossi, studying under Gustave Courtois and making her debut at the Paris Salon in 1883 with Fête juive. A season at Pont Aven followed, and Schjerfbeck subsequently lived for a time in St. Ives before returning definitively to Finland in 1890. Twelve years later she resigned her teaching commitments and moved to to Hyvinkää, where Girl with Blonde Hair and The Fencer were painted.
Living a reclusive, isolated life with her mother in a predominately female community gave Schjerfbeck the artistic freedom she craved. She noted approvingly that Degas too could only settle down to painting by disdaining society. Underlying her temperament was a traumatic childhood injury: at the tender age of four, Schjerfbeck had had a catastrophic fall on a staircase, badly injuring her left hip and leaving her with a permanent limp. Her twin brother and sister died at the age of one, her elder sister died shortly before her birth, and she lost her father to tuberculosis at the age of thirteen. Schjerfbeck suffered from lifelong illness, later writing to Einar Reuter that in fifty years she had had not one day of good health. As a female modern artist coming to terms with the trauma of disability, Schjerfbeck’s situation invites comparison to that of Frida Kahlo. Yet rather than engaging with her injury head-on in her work, as Kahlo would do, Schjerfbeck keeps it below the surface, implicit in her lifestyle, choice of subjects, and above all her determined approach.
Always renowned in Finland and Sweden, Schjerfbeck’s work has increasingly attracted international public attention in recent years. Lemons in a Bowl toured Canada and the USA in 1949-53, and was one of the Schjerfbecks representing Finland at the Venice Biennale in 1956, however Schjerfbeck’s international reputation truly gathered momentum with the exhibition in Washington D.C. and New York in 1992-93. Her first major European retrospective outside of the Nordic countries was held in Hamburg, the Hague, and Paris in 2007-08, followed by the Helene Schjerfbeck 150 Years exhibition in Helsinki and Gothenburg in 2012.
The presentation to the market of this group of four important Schjerfbecks, followed by the record price achieved for the artist’s work in these rooms in 2008, therefore comes at a significant time in her international reputation.