‘When the models come and sit down in front of me, I see their beauty, but what goes on inside them? What do they think? I have always longed for the murky depths of souls, who have not yet found themselves, where everything is still unconscious – precisely in such one can find treasures’
This collection of nine works is arguably the most important ensemble of late portraits by Helene Schjerfbeck still in private hands. Executed between 1923 and 1945, seen together the drawings, watercolours and paintings form a remarkable chronicle of the artist’s output over these decades, and of her ongoing originality as an artist right up to her death in 1946. Whether iterations of earlier compositions or completely new ones, all of these works stand out for their expressiveness, and place them at the very forefront of Finnish but also European modernism.
In these stylistically pared-down portraits Schjerfbeck abnegates realism, or close study of the sitter, in favour of something derived from within: from within her sitters but also herself. Through sparing but powerful application of paint and recourse to her broad art historical and cultural frame of reference, Schjerfbeck, who started out painting in a naturalistic style, sought not only to paint expressive rather than literal resemblances, but to voice her own individuality as a painter. Her quest is heavily shaped by her receptiveness to past and present art, from the Old Masters and Siamese and Cambodian tribal masks, to the japonisme sweeping Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, as well as contemporary art and fashion.
Born in Helsinki to a railway manager and a farmer’s daughter, Schjerfbeck studied at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society. In 1880 she received a travel grant from the Senate to go to Paris, where she studied at the Académie Colarossi and came into contact with many contemporary artists. In 1883 she made her debut at the Paris Salon with her painting Fête juive. That summer she spent time at the artists’ colony of Pont-Aven with fellow artists Marianne Preindlsberger and Maria Wiik, then spent the summers of 1887 and 1889 in St Ives, where she painted one of her greatest naturalistic masterpieces, The Convalesent, shown at the Salon of 1888. In the mid 1890s she travelled to St Petersburg, Vienna, and Florence making copies after the Old Masters for the Finnish Art Society, before settling for good in Finland and teaching the Art Society’s drawing class.
‘Let us avoid executing so precisely and exactly, that our work closes the way instead of opening it, let us imply.’
In 1902 she resigned her teaching post and moved with her mother, Olga, to Hyvinkää to the north, where she evolved her new, modernist style while living the life of a recluse. Though she would not travel for the next fifteen years, she kept up with the times by subscribing to and reading international art and fashion journals. Following encouraging reviews of her work in the Turku press in 1913, she was visited by the journalist and art dealer Gösta Stenman, who purchased several of her works. A year later, she met the forester, writer and painter Einar Reuter, starting a lifelong friendship. Although ostensibly a platonic relationship, she was devastated when he announced his marriage to a Swedish woman in 1920.
From 1916-20 she participated in several exhibitions: in 1916 in an exhibition of Finnish art at the Liljevach Art Exhibition hall in Stockholm, and in 1919 in an exhibition of Finnish art in Copenhagen. In 1917, Stenman organized her first one-woman exhibition in Helsinki. To coincide with this, Einar Reuter wrote his first book on the artist. Following her mother’s death in 1923, Schjerfbeck moved to Tammisaari in 1925. Stenman began commissioning new versions of Schjerfbeck’s early works, and in 1938 hosted her second one-woman exhibition, this time at his gallery in Stockholm. It marked the start of yearly exhibitions of her work at his gallery, and in 1938 Schjerfbeck signed a formal contract with him giving him the right of first refusal on all her new paintings.
In 1941 she Schjerfbeck was evacuated to Loviisa, before moving to the Luontola sanatorium in Numela. In 1944, at Stenman’s expense, she moved to Stockholm to escape the war, where she painted her series of moving self portraits, and died at the Saltsjöbaden spa hotel.