Finnish National Gallery - Art Collections

A Journey with Helene Schjerfbeck

This art trail takes us through works by Finland's well-loved artist Helene Schjerfbeck, starting from the very beginning of her long career. Over nearly eight decades Schjerfbeck moved from history painting through realism and on to the simplified Modernist style she is best known for.

1. A JOURNEY WITH HELENE SCHJERFBECK

Schjerfbeck, Helene
Self-Portrait

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) was a highly productive artist. The Ateneum Art Museum collections hold some two hundred of her works, roughly half of them drawings. For this particular art trail we have chosen works ranging from the start of her career in the 1870s to the end of the 1940s.

The trail includes her most important subjects, some well-loved favourites and also some less known works, ranging over the seventy-odd years of her professional life. It concentrates on her artistic development and actual works. Schjerfbeck’s own voice can be heard through quotations from her letters.

My desire in life has been to sit unnoticed and paint, to follow every failure with a new beginning and to hope that I will once, at least, produce a good work. I dread being in the public eye. (Letter to Einar Reuter Feb 15, 1939) (T)

2. CHILDHOOD DRAWINGS

Schjerfbeck, Helene
Luonnoskirjan sivu, Kissa; Kaneja

Helene Schjerfbeck's childhood sketchbook dating 1872–74 contains pencil drawings of the things around her: animals, nature and household objects. It covers a variety of subjects, and she experimented with portraits and a variety of materials. The cat drawing dates from April 29, 1872 when Schjerfbeck was still only 9. The rabbits were drawn at the end of the same year, on December 12.

The pencil drawings are skilful for a child of roughly 10. She was able to grasp the world around her and transfer what she saw to paper. These excellent drawings drew her governess's attention, and she was accepted by the Finnish Art Society drawing school in 1873 when only 11, though officially the minimum age was 12. More important than this drawing school, though, were her later studies at the private academy of the Paris-trained artist Adolf von Becker in 1877–79.

See the whole sketchbook.

3. HISTORY PAINTING

Schjerfbeck, Helene
Wounded Warrior in the Snow

In the 19th century history painting was still considered the most prestigious of all genres. In 1879 and 1880 Schjerfbeck produced numerous sketches on historical subjects, hoping that this serious and demanding genre would win her recognition while she was still young.

The imaginary event depicted in Wounded Warrior in the Snow (1880) is from the Finnish war of 1808–1809. However, it is not a stirring depiction of a battle scene, for Schjerfbeck concentrates on a single dying soldier, also calling the painting by that name. Our eyes focus on the soldier’s body and the birch tree that forms its mirror image.

The painting was purchased for the Finnish Art Society collection and in 1880 Schjerfbeck was awarded a senate travel grant, allowing her to travel to Paris that autumn to study art further.

Schjerfbeck, Helene
Luonnos maalaukseen Haavoittunut soturi hangella

Important elements in the painting are the skilfully painted wintry landscape and the slumped position of the body, while the face is crucial in creating mood.

This sketchbook study of the soldier’s face tells us how careful Schjerfbeck was to get the work exactly right. His eyes are half-open, and in the final painting his cheeks are flushed, revealing that he is still alive. Schjerfbeck has thus captured a fleeting moment before death.

See the whole sketchbook.

4. NATURALISM

Schjerfbeck, Helene
A Boy Feeding his Little Sister

I like to paint poor but sensitive children, though I don’t know if they interest anybody. (Letter to Einar Reuter Jan 8, 1918) (T)

This painting depicts an everyday situation: a boy feeding his little sister. They are poor, and wear simple, much-mended clothes. There is straw peeping out from the boy’s clogs. Schjerfbeck painted these children in 1881 in Brittany, France. The broad brushstrokes and earth colours indicate influence from the French Naturalism that she encountered while studying in Paris in late 1880 and early 1881.

This work aroused disapproval in the Finnish press because the subject was considered ugly and insignificant even though critics found something appealing in the picture. What gave offence was that though the painting was large (115 x 94.5 cm) its subject was trivial. The rough surface, with its visible brush strokes, was also considered unfinished.

Schjerfbeck herself was enchanted by such models, for she saw "something beautiful, fresh and genuine" in Breton people, and this is reflected in the work.

5. SIMPLIFICATION OF THE SUBJECT

Schjerfbeck painted The Door (Old Monastery Hall) in 1884 at Trémalo chapel in Pont-Aven, during her second visit to Brittany. It seems an ultra-simplified work, but the composition is very carefully worked out.

In this work the ostensible subject practically disappears. What fascinates the viewer is the closed door and the light escaping round it. The painting does not aim to picture reality and create an illusion of space, but rather to create a new, simplified means of expression.

6. THE COPIES

Schjerfbeck, Helene
Copy of Velázquez's painting Infantinna Maria Teresia

In 1894 Schjerfbeck produced this copy of Velázquez’s famous portrait Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Pink Dress, (c.1653–54). The Finnish Art Society wanted to add copies of works by great European masters to its collection and paid young artists to travel to reproduce the originals.

In 1894 Schjerfbeck thus travelled to Vienna and at the Kunsthistoriches Museum made copies of this work by Velázquez, and also of Hans Holbein the Younger’s Portrait of John Chambers (c. 1543). Between 1886 and 1894 she produced altogether six copies which were added to the State Copy Collection in this way. The fees made it possible for her to travel elsewhere, and from Vienna she moved on to Florence.

Copying has always formed part of an artist’s training as it is a way of learning about old master techniques and use of colour. Later, Schjerfbeck for instance produced some new interpretations of certain works by El Greco. These were not copies per se but independent works of art produced under the influence of their models.

I am more and more fascinated by the paintings of the past. The old masters are a revelation when you study them patiently, for a long time, and copying is the best way of doing that. (Letter to Maria Wiik, 1894) (H)

7. NEW VERSIONS

Schjerfbeck, Helene
The Seamstress (The Working Woman)

In the early 20th century Schjerfbeck developed her own distinctive style, a unique synthesis based on a harmony of blacks and browns, using areas of flat colour.

The Seamstress (1905) is a fine example of this technique. The scissors hanging from her waist point to her occupation, but she is not busily at work; rather, she is resting, sunk in her thoughts.

The essence of the model was very important to Schjerfbeck.

Last week I engaged a model because I needed to change a head, but I found it’s impossible to combine the head of one model with the body of another, even in a bad painting. There is something characteristic in a person’s head, hands and feet. (Letter to Maria Wiik Oct 16,1907) (S)

Schjerfbeck produced many works showing women in their home environment. The model was often her own mother, with whom she shared a home in Hyvinkää in 1902–23.

Schjerfbeck, Helene
The Seamstress, Half-Length Portrait (The Working Woman)

The art dealer Gösta Stenman had first met Helene Schjerfbeck in 1913. He was to act as her advisor, arrange exhibitions for her and support her financially by purchasing her works. Once when she lacked a model, he proposed that she should paint a new version of her 1905 Seamstress, which he considered her finest work to date.

This 1927 version of The Seamstress is a half-length portrait, as if a close-up of the original, but simpler and more stylized in approach. The outlines are brought out more, using thin black paint, and this second version is less soft than the first.

Schjerfbeck often painted copies of printed pictures. She found such work relaxing, but on the other hand felt it was strange to return to the techniques in her youth.

Stenman was pleased with this second Seamstress and commissioned more new versions, including new renderings of The Convalescent, Shadow on the Wall and many other youthful works.

8. PICTURES OF CHILDREN

Schjerfbeck, Helene
The Woodcutter I

Schjerfbeck produced numerous paintings of children. The Ateneum’s The Woodcutter I dates from 1910–11, but prompted many later versions. She has greatly simplified the subject, and focuses only on the essentials: the boy’s expression and his position. Schjerfbeck herself felt that this painting was a true fulfilment of her artistic objectives.

The work is a good example of the way Schjerfbeck worked over a painting, wiping and scratching the paint away. Here, only hint of the blue can be glimpsed in the backround. She has deliberately aimed to give the impression of his age, painting the face in a light shade that makes it stand out. The outlines are emphasised with oil paint and crayon, and the surface is rough and dull. Elsewhere she relies on earth colours, but here she makes the lips stand out in red and the eyes in blue.

A person said when it was new that it produces a powerful but unreal effect. At that point I knew nothing about the unreal in art, but had not sought to produce an illusion of reality anyway. (Letter to Einar Reuter July 29, 1916) (T)

The model for the painting was Einar Sahrman, a next-door neighbour of the Schjerfbecks in Hyvinkää who helped them for instance by cutting wood and carrying water.

Schjerfbeck, Helene
Girl on the Sand

A child should be painted the way children themselves paint. Spontaneously. (Letter to Einar Reuter April 8, 1920) (T)

Girl on the Sand is a painting full of light. The girl's crouched-over position is delicately depicted.

Schjerfbeck mostly painted in oil, but tried to avoid producing a glossy surface. In Girl on the Sand she used tempera, which leaves a matte surface.

It was often difficult to get enough models. By painting children Schjerfbeck sought to produce something that looked natural.

Even children don't have much time because of school, apart from a few wild ones, who don't get any education, and actually they're usually more civilized than school-goers, and more natural, so I prefer them. (Letter to Maria Wiik Oct 25, 1916) (S)

9. STYLIZATION

Schjerfbeck, Helene
The Family Heirloom

I've been thinking about picture, of my brother with a red box in his hand and two other heads bent over it, to be called 'Family Heirloom'. The motif is the leaning of the three heads, perhaps with high background, in red. (Letter to Einar Reuter Aug 27, 1915) (T)

In thinking about Family Heirloom (1915–16) Schjerfbeck first concentrated on the composition and left female figures stylized. The red background adds warmth, while the red lips and jewel box create rhythm.

Schjerfbeck's stylization, flat colour surfaces and lack of perspective reflect the interest in Japanese woodcuts felt by most artists at the period.

10. STILL-LIFES

Schjerfbeck painted still-lifes throughout her career, especially of cut flowers and fruit. In her Red Apples (1915) she used not only bright colours, thick layers of paint and expressive brushwork, but also a pallet knife to produce the flat surface. The glowing red is accentuated by its complementary colour, green. She used many different colours here: various shades of green, mustard yellow, pinkish red and in the background violet. These colours are positioned brilliantly to counterbalance each other.

Schjerfbeck found apples the most difficult fruit to paint. Later in life she recalled influences from the time she spent in Paris as a young woman, and for instance her response to apple paintings by the great French painter Paul Cézanne, whom she admired greatly. She was particularly fascinated by the way Cézanne used colour.

…in colour matters Cézanne was one painter who set completely impossible colours side by side. Yet the overall effect was harmonious in the end because he always used exactly the right amounts of each colour. It's not only the tone but the amount of each tone that makes it complete. A single stroke of the brush in a colour is often fine but another touch of the same colour ruins everything. (Letter to Maria Wiik Aug 3, 1916) (S)

Schjerfbeck, Helene
Still Life in Green

Still Life in Green (c. 1930) is based on different fruits all painted in different shades of green. Schjerfbeck worked slowly: sometimes she would be painting the same group of pears and apples so long that they all went rotten. In still life she was able to concentrate on the fundamentals: colour, form and composition.

Marie [her artist friend Maria Wiik] thought I should paint flowers, their 'soul', but I preferred fruit and just now I'm trying to find the 'soul' of a plum. Actually, because I need to get a bit closer to reality than I have time to do when working with flowers or people, I am now painting the perishable elements first and leaving the bowl till later when I can relax. It's odd that when one's concentrating only on doing everything right the result is dead and uninteresting, like everything else in life. (Letter to Helena Westermarck, Aug 6, 1913) (S)

11. TOWARDS THE ABSTRACT

Schjerfbeck, Helene
The Old Brewery (Composition)

Schjerfbeck never completely abandoned the representational, but her landscape The Old Brewery (1918) is close to abstract, non-representational art. A tree stands at the right-hand side, while at centre-left we can just make out the roof of what must be the brewery. Otherwise nothing is clear.

The composition is subtle and the act of painting can be seen in the areas of colour. The subject itself can barely be made out and the main elements are the colours: various shades of green, grey, and a touch of pale blue, all against a black background.

12. THE MODERN PORTRAIT

Schjerfbeck, Helene
Modern Schoolgirl

The portrait is the most interesting thing there is. It's a picture of the times without any sentimental embellishment. (Letter to Maria Wiik 1907) (S)

Modern Schoolgirl (1928) has flat areas of pale paint with a touch of rose pink. The green edge of the collar and the red lips provide highlights of colour. Other focus points are the white on the neck of the blouse and the flower at her breast. There are dark shadows round the eyes. The background is painted thinly, allowing the canvas to show through in places. The model is barely recognizable.

Schjerfbeck mostly painted portraits because she felt that "nothing is as interesting as the human face", as she wrote to her artist friend Helena Westermarck on October 23, 1929. However, she did not aim so much at physical likenesses as to reflect the subject's individuality and the impression she gained in her own relationship with the model.

You suggested that I tend to simplify everything – I can't really say, but I do see things without details and without little black dots here and there. (Letter to Maria Wiik Nov 15, 1916) (S)

13. LITHOGRAPHS

Schjerfbeck, Helene
The Convalescent

The Convalescent from 1888 is one of Schjerfbeck’s best-loved works. The 'sick child' theme was common in 19th century art. Schjerfbeck painted this example in St. Ives, Cornwall, Southwest England, where she stayed from summer 1887 to spring 1888.

It is her last naturalistic painting aiming to depict objective reality, yet at the same time it takes a step forward towards a more inward-looking theory of art. Her use of light here is brilliant, with the viewer's eyes drawn to the girl's face and little budding twiglet she is holding.

The work is often viewed as a kind of artist's self-portrait.

Schjerfbeck, Helene
The Convalescent

As Schjerfbeck often had problems finding enough models, art dealer Gösta Stenman persuaded her to produce new versions of her old paintings in the form of lithographs. Learning a new technique at the age of 76 was not easy for Schjerfbeck. In lithography the image is drawn in wax crayon onto stone or a metal plate, then transferred onto paper.

Schjerfbeck’s habit of experimenting with several lines before finding the right one did not work in lithography, which demands exactly the right line at first try. As a result, she struggled.

I objected strongly to his plans because I lack the necessary drawing technique. I wipe away line after line until I hit on the right one. That’s impossible with a wax crayon and using paper or a plate. If I do that, nothing gets done – and then having drawn in mirror image with left right and the right left. (Letter to Einar Reuter Feb 15, 1939) (T)

In her lithograph of The Convalescent (1938–39), she has eliminated the detail in the original work. It should be noted that Schjerfbeck has not produced a mirror image, but drawn on the plate exactly as in the original oil. As a result it is the print that comes out in mirror image.

14. SELF-PORTRAITS

Schjerfbeck, Helene
Self-Portrait with Red Spot

Helene Schjerfbeck painted some 40 self-portraits, about half of them in her final years in the 1940s. One of the best-known is the commissioned Self-Portrait, Black Background (1915), on which Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse has written.

In Self-Portrait with Red Spot (1944) the figure seems frozen and rather lifeless, but the red brush stroke on the lip adds a vibrant touch of life. Schjerfbeck’s approach is particularly bold in the self-portraits, where she scrutinizes herself without mercy.

But the exhaustion of old age is something completely different – liberating, too, because you can let things go their own way, and are left with nothing but the sensitivity of the brush. Frans Hals and Rembrandt were the best in those days. (Letter to Einar Reuter, Nov 28, 1926) (T)

Schjerfbeck lived from 1942 to '44 at Luontola sanatorium and spent her last years (1944–45) at Saltsjöbaden sanatorium in Stockholm. During these years she painted not only self-portraits but also floral still lifes and portraits of the nursing staff.

Schjerfbeck, Helene
Self-Portrait en face I

In her final self-portraits Schjerfbeck pitilessly scrutinizes her aging face. In Self-Portrait, en face I (1945) the face seems to be viewed head on, but the eyes are looking to the side. The impression given is both fragile and powerful.

To the very end Schjerfbeck wanted to be honest. In 1944, for instance, she wrote to her cousin's daughter Dora Estlander that artists who prettify themselves in self-portraits are boring.

Her last self-portraits are drawings, depicting only the shape of the skull, the eye sockets, the mouth and the nose. The most reduced of all are like skulls. We sense the approach of death.

15. SCRIPT AND SOURCES

Schjerfbeck, Helene
Roses in a Blue-Green Vase

Script and text: Art Historian Siina Hälikkä, Finnish National Gallery / Community Relations and Development Department, Kehys 2012

Translation: Diana Tullberg

The quotations from letters are from correspondence with her fellow-artists Helena Westermarck and Maria Wiik, and her friend Einar Reuter (aka H. Ahtela). Reuter was a forester, painter and art enthusiast whom Schjerfbeck first met in 1915. They regularly exchanged ideas and thoughts, especially about art.

Quotations are taken from the following works:

(T) = Taiteilija on tunteen työläinen. Helene Schjerfbeckin taiteesta ja elämästä, toim. Marjatta Levanto. Museopedagogisen yksikön julkaisuja 2, Helsinki: Valtion taidemuseo 1992

(S) = Silti minä maalaan. Taiteilijan kirjeitä Maria Wiikille. toim. Lena Holger. Helsinki: SKS 2011.

(H) = Helene Schjerfbeck. Elämäkuvan ääriviivoja. Appelberg, Hanna ja Eilif. Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava, 1949

Konttinen, Riitta: Oma tie, Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava, 2004

Sources:

Ahtola-Moorhouse, Leena: Helene Schjerfbeck, Biography, Helene Schjerfbeck – 150 years. Helsinki: Ateneum Art Museum / Finnish National Gallery, 2012

Ahtola-Moorhouse, Leena: Helene Schjerfbeck's self-portraits, Helene Schjerfbeck. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum, 1992

Appelberg, Hanna ja Eilif: Helene Schjerfbeck. Elämäkuvan ääriviivoja. Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava, 1949

Konttinen, Riitta: Oma tie, Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava, 2004

Sarajas-Korte, Salme: Towards synthesis, Helene Schjerfbeck. Helsinki: Ateneum, 1992