Helene Schjerfbeck

July 10, 1862 to January 23, 1946

Finnish artist –   well-known primarily for her portraiture. However, she was also an accomplished landscape and still life artist.

Brief bio from https://www.clarkart.edu/Mini-Sites/Women-Artists-in-Paris/Helene-Schjerfbeck

Helene Schjerfbeck began her training in Helsinki. In 1880, she was awarded a grant to study in Paris and enrolled in Madame Trélat de Vigny’s workshop, where she became close friends with Marianne Stokes. After traveling around France and briefly in Finland, she returned to Paris to study at the Académie Colarossi. In the 1890s, she returned to Helsinki and taught in the Drawing School. Health issues caused her to resign from that position, and in 1902 she relocated to a small, isolated village to care for her ailing mother. There, she continued to paint but had little connection with other artists. More than decade later, she moved to Tammisaari and reconnected with the art world; in 1914 she was the only Finnish woman artist invited to participate in the Baltic Exhibition in Sweden. After she began exhibiting her work again, she did so until her death in 1946.

I became fascinated with the works of HS whilst researching the work of female self-portrait artists for this section of the course, where we are to produce our own self-portrait. I have been battling to come up with something that captures my personality and is not just a weak attempt at a caricature.  

These days, everyone seems to be obsessed with Frida Kahlo and whilst her story and paintings are fascinating and fabulous, there are many other female artists who have also struggled ‘against the odds’ to create work of immense depth and import.   Many of them have just been swept under the carpet and ignored. 

HS was exceptionally talented from a very young age and as she matured, created work that was way ahead of her time.  The development of her style can be seen clearly in the progression of self-portraits, which she did almost right up until her death from cancer at the age of 84.   She began to strip away superfluous detail, concentrating on shape, light and shadow. Looking at her paintings now, it is something of a travesty that this woman did not achieve more fame whilst she was alive. For decades,  she was basically ignored and worked in isolation, living with her elderly mother.   Some of her portraiture work has been compared to that of Whistler, which apparently she wasn’t keen about – it’s easy to make the comparison though, especially in the studies of her mother.

She was eventually said to be ‘one of the pioneers of modernism in Finland’ and is now a national icon.  In my opinion her vast body of work is universal in scope and a source of great inspiration for me.  

Helene Schjerfbeck ‘Shadow on the Wall’ c 1883
Source: Bridgeman education

I can’t help wondering if Cézanne’s painting, ‘The House of the Hanged Man at Auvers’ , which was done in 1873, inspired Helene’s ‘Shadow on the Wall’ painting.

Paul Cézanne – ‘The House of the hanged Man’ 1873
Source; Bridgeman Education
Helene Schjerfbeck ‘The Door’ 1884
Source: Royal Academy.org

I absolutely adore this fabulous atmospheric painting which was apparently painted in the chapel of Trèmolo near the French village of Pont-Aven. (source of information: Wikipedia)

Helene Schjerfbeck ‘The Convalescent’ 1888
Source: Bridgeman education

‘The Convalescent’, which won a bronze medal at the 1889 Paris Fair, was painted in Cornwall, where Helene lived for some time after moving there from Paris. The painting is not about sickness – the child’s eyes are filled with hope and exhuberance. It is a painting about rebirth and renewal, which may have something to do with the fact that Helene had gone to Cornwall mainly to get over the break up of her relationship with her fiance. She fell in love with Cornwall.

Helen Schjerfbeck ‘The Death of Wilhelm von Schwerin‘ 1886  
Source: Wikipedia

The painting above is one of three studies she did of this theme, which is based on a poem by J. L. Runeberg. She produced some of these historical works in the early part of her career, themes that were largely the domain of male painters.

Helene Schjerfbeck ‘Self Portrait’ 1895
Source: Wikipedia

Here follows a selection of self-portraits, clearly showing how her style became more abstracted and minimalistic.

The below charcoal portrait was one of the last self-portraits she did.

Helene Schjerfbeck ‘Self portrait’o the artist with eyes closed’ 1945 Charcoal on paper
Source: Bridgeman education


https://www.wikiart.org/en/helene-schjerfbeck/all-works  (selection of 48 paintings)



  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yWm3M-d3zA  – gallery overview of recent exhibition

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABsPEGWoeE4 – Stories of Finnish art – ‘The Convalescent’ `1888

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTIrZElACNg  – the portraits

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itb_tAJrsxw  – a collection of 130 paintings

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