Gösta Stenman (commissioned from the artist)
Dr. H. Rolands, Stockholm, purchased in 1938; thence by descent to the present owner
Executed in 1927.
The Convalescent is one of Helene Schjerfbeck's most popular and enduring images. As with many of her favourite themes, she returned to this image throughout her life, but each time reducing and abbreviating the image so that it always remained fresh and modern.
The ethereal convalescing girl in the present work bears a special and poignant significance for her author: Schjerfbeck suffered from a debilitating hip ailment from early childhood and, as Riitta Konttinen attests, works such as The Convalescent 'have been seen as symbolic self-portraits' (Riitta Konttinen, 'Helene Schjerfbeck in the 1880s', Helene Schjerfbeck, exh. cat., The Finnish National Gallery Ateneum, 1992, p. 39). For Schjerfbeck, there was no distinction between art and life, her paintings providing her with a tool to explore and understand the emotional and physical traumas that beset her life.
Schjerfbeck's first treatment of this theme (fig. 1) received favourable attention when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1888. Painted while staying in St Ives, it marked the artist's first tangible departure from historical and naturalist genre towards a very personal internalized conception of art.
Schjerfbeck returned to the subject almost forty years later in 1927 with the present work. This reinterpretation stripped the original 1888 oil painting of all but the mere suggestion of a wicker chair and table with its various paraphernalia. The monochrome palette and disciplined lines create sharply angled shapes and a continual rhythm leading the eye around the composition. The viewer's attention is held by the triangular motion between the sitter's young yet heavy eyes, along her arms to her fingers toying with the symbolic budding twig. The sitter adopts the angularised features, the stylized mouth, chin and eyes, which would become Schjerfbeck's trademark.
In the same year, Schjerfbeck executed a reduced oil version of the original Salon painting. She returned to the subject again in 1938 in a series of watercolours and a lithograph (fig. 2).
The defiant spirit of her work, often relentlessly exploring the same motif until reaching its essence, singles her out as one of the greatest women artists of the twentieth century.
Fig. 1, Schjerfbeck, The Convalescent, oil on canvas, 1888 © Ateneum, Helsinki ----- 355D05101
Fig. 2, Schjerfbeck, The Convalescent, lithograph, 1938-9, Private Collection ------ 356D05101
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