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Details & Cataloguing

19th Century European Paintings

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Helene Schjerfbeck
1862 - 1946
FINNISH
THE DEATH OF WILHELM VON SCHWERIN
signed with initials upper right
oil on canvas
79.5 by 61.5cm., 31¼ by 24¼in.
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Provenance

Gösta Stenman 
Gunhild Åhlén, Stockholm (the grandmother of the present owner. Åhlén assembled an important collection of Schjerfbeck's work, which notably included Churchgoers (Easter Morning), which she donated to the Helsinki Ateneum in 1991); thence by descent to the present owner

Literature

H. Ahtela, Helena Schjerfbeck, Stockholm, 1953, p. 366,  no. 632, catalogued
Helene Schjerfbeck 150 Years, exh. cat., Helsinki, 2012, p. 260, no. 498, catalogued and illustrated 

Catalogue Note

Painted in 1927, Schjerfbeck's painting depicts the passing of one of Finland's youngest military heroes of the Finnish War, fought between Sweden and the Russian Empire from February 1808 to September 1809 and resulting in the eastern third of Sweden being established as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire.

Schwerin was the son of an aristocrat from the outskirts of Stockholm. He had attended a military academy for a few years before Finnish War erupted and was made a corporal of the artillery brigade at the age of fifteen. He was deployed in 1808, showing great valour and bravery at the Battle of Oravainen on 14 September, defending a bridge under attack from Russian Cossack forces. Surrounded and wounded by the enemy, he mounted a counter-attack through enemy lines, where he and his men were confronted by bayonnet-wielding warriors. After the battle, Schwerin was moved to Kalajoki, where he died of his injuries on 29 September. Schwerin's bravery was celebrated and immortalised in a poem that bears his name in J. L. Runeberg's epic, Tales of Ensign Stål, (in two volumes, published in 1848 and 1860) and later captured the imagination of numerous artists including Schjerfbeck and Albert Edelfelt.

The present work, executed in the pared down style that characterises Schjerfbeck's later work, reprises two much earlier oils, of 1879 and 1886 respectively. The first version (fig.1), painted when Schjerfbeck was just seventeen and now in the collection of the Villa Gyllenberg, was exhibited at the Finnish Art Society in 1879, and shows the influence of her early training under Adolf von Becker. The second version, shown at the Finnish Art Society exhibition of 1886 and now in the Turku Art Museum, was completed after Schjerfbeck's return from France, and is painted in the naturalistic style pioneered by Jules Bastien-Lepage and the Pont-Aven artists whom she met there and whose work she admired. An oil sketch for the 1886 painting, signed dated 1885, and showing an empty stretcher with Schwerin's uniform draped over it, is in the Ostrobothnian Museum, Vaasa.

Even into her later career, for Schjerbeck, history painting was not anachronistic; on the contrary, in keeping with French Naturalism's insistence on topicality ('il faut être de son temps'), history painting was not about relating an event but rather revealing the human condition. As Riitta Konttinen states, 'the aim in The Death of Wilhelm von Schwerin is to depict something tragic and noble in an everyday setting.' ('Helene Schjerfbeck in the 1880s', Helene Schjerfbeck, Ateneum, 1992, p. 45).

19th Century European Paintings

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London