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).
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