Painted in 1885 at the home of Dr Georg and Mathilda Asp at Kyrkotorget 3, Helsinki, the present work portrays their daughter Gudrun aged three years old. Dressed in a ruby red frock over a blouse with lace collar and cuffs, the little girl stands in front of tropical house plants as she toys with two pacific sea shells placed on the seat of a velvet upholstered chair, clear references to the sophistication and worldliness of the Asp's and Gudrun's privileged upbringing.
Dr Asp, a friend of Schjerfbeck's father, taught Schjerfbeck anatomy at the Finnish Art Society drawing school. A medical doctor by training he advised her parents on Helene's hip ailment, a consequence of her falling down stairs at the age of four. After Schjerfbeck's father's death in 1876 the Asps continued to take a close interest in Helene's progress, including the provision of financial support.
The importance of the role that the Asps played in her artistic development is revealed in a letter Schjerfbeck sent to the sitter several decades later. Writing to Gudrun - by then in her forties - on 19th June 1929, Schjerfbeck recalled: 'It was Professor Georg Asp who payed my first tuition in Professor A. V. Becker's Painting Academy. It was his wife Mathilda Asp who procured the scholarship for studies in Paris - it was the first help in my career.'
The significance of the Asp's patronage is noted by Riitta Konttinen. Schjerfbeck's mother had engaged the ultra conservative B.O Schauman as a guide for her daughter's talents. However, it was the liberating time that Schjerfbeck spent at Adolf von Becker's private art academy courtesy of the Asps that had such a seminal impact on her work. Konttinen writes '...she mentioned that all von Becker's teaching had been "healthy and good." Von Becker acquainted his pupils with the working methods of Parisian studios, and with French Realism, primarily as it was manifest in the works of Gustave Courbet, Edouard Frère and Léon Bonnat. ' (Riitta Konttinen, 'Helene Schjerfbeck in the 1880s' in Helene Schjerfbeck, exh. cat., Helsinki, 1992, p. 40).
Even more exhilarating than her time under the watchful eye of von Becker in Helsinki was her anticipation of visiting Paris. Again, thanks to the Asps' assistance she gained the necessary travel scholarships to spend most of 1881 and 1882 in the French capital. Describing her position at the end of 1881 she wrote from France: 'I am considered fortunate to have been able to go abroad so young and to see and learn, and for good reason, for I am in a much more fortunate position than others... My greatest wish would be to spend yet another year in Paris...' (Konttinen, p. 41). Such benevolence spurred on Schjerfbeck's subsequent travels abroad throughout the decade, which included spending most of 1883 and the spring of 1884 in Pont Aven.
The technical progress Schjerfbeck made while in France is evident in the rich variety of textures she includes in the composition - soft, hard, durable and ephemeral, while the bourgeois belle-époque setting reflects both the influence of her formative teacher in Paris, Gustave Courtois, and her contact there with fellow Finn Albert Edelfelt. The work is perhaps even more notable, however, for its large size.
For reasons of practicality, Schjerfbeck tended to work on a relatively small scale. However, her portrait of Gudrun is one of only a dozen compositions in oil from the 1880s that exceed a metre in either height or width. Such large works were typically history and social genre paintings such as Wounded Warrior in the Snow of 1880 (Ateneum) or Jewish Festival of 1883 (Gyllenberg Foundation), not portraits. As befits the subject, her oil paintings of children - for which she already had an established reputation - tended to be a fraction of the size of the present work. Notable exceptions to this are Boy Feeding his Little Sister and The Convalescent (fig. 1). Devoting such a large scale canvas to the likeness of Gudrun indicates the importance that Schjerfbeck attached to her subject which in turn gives an indication of the debt she felt towards the Asps, her early sponsors.
In the family of the sitter since it was commissioned from Schjerfbeck by Dr and Mrs Asp, this work is offered for sale with the original shells that appear in the painting (fig. 2).
FIG. 1, Helene Schjerfbeck, The Convalescent, 1888, Ateneum, Helsinki
FIG. 2, The shells that appear in the present work, to be sold with this lot
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