‘In LA [L’Amour de l’art] it said that it was Greco who brought spiritualism to art, and indeed he probably did.’
Schjerfbeck in a letter to Einar Reuter

By her own account Schjerfbeck only ever saw one painting by El Greco in the flesh and another that might have been a forgery, and yet the experience must have left a profound impression on her as the work of the sixteenth-century Spanish master was to become a major influence on her work. As early as 1905, no doubt having read an article entitled ‘El Greco’ published in L’Art et les Artistes that same year, Schjerfbeck wrote to her friend and fellow artist Maria Wiik that she ‘would like to make up El Greco’s palette: white, black, yellow ochre, and cinnabar’.

Attributed to El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), Portrait of a Lady, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Schjerfbeck was drawn to Greco’s portraits by his sheer drama, his use of colour and chiaroscuro, and by his manner of creating intense focus on facial expression and reaching the what she called the ‘deep layers of the soul’. It was through her reinterpretation of the work of artists she admired that Schjerfbeck’s originality lay. At times, she looked to Greco to express deep inner anguish, and neurasthenia even – a medical term much in parlance at the turn of the century to describe mental disorder or stress; at other times, as in the present work, to convey serenity and love. Here, the soulful yet submissive gaze takes on quasi-religious overtones, that of a benevolent Madonna, bringing us closer to that which is innermost in our humanity.

Schjerfbeck based the present work, painted circa 1928, on a black and white illustration of a painting by El Greco (today in the John G. Johnson Collection, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art) she had seen in August Meyer’s 1911 monograph on the artist, a copy of which she owned.