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Artists in 60 Seconds: Helene Schjerfbeck

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© Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki; used with permission

Helene Schjerfbeck (Finnish, 1862-1946). Self Portrait, 1912. Oil on canvas. 43.5 x 42 cm (17 1/8 x 16 1/2 in.).

© Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:

Symbolism seems like the best fit.

Honestly? The more recognition she receives the harder it becomes to classify her working style. Many movements have tried to claim Helene Schjerfbeck as one of their number.

She was supposedly a Realist, a Romanticist, an Impressionist, a Naturalist, a Symbolist, an Expressionist and a wildly ahead-of-her-time Abstractist. Truthfully, there were elements of all of these in her work as the decades progressed and one would not be incorrect using any of these terms. But in the end she stripped herself of all save that which symbolized 83-years' worth of learning to see.

Date and Place of Birth:

July 10, 1862, Helsinki, Finland

Early Life:

Helene Schjerfbeck may have had an unremarkable life had she not fallen down a flight of stairs and broken her hip at age four. Her injury mended badly, leaving her with a pronounced limp that made it impossible for her to attend school. It also impeded her mobility and kept her in fragile health for the rest of her life.

On the upside, her housebound status allowed many hours for sketching and she was accepted as a drawing student at the Finnish Art Society in 1873. An artistic prodigy, she was eleven years old--a full five years younger than typical new students.

After only two years' study, Schjerfbeck's father died and the family, never well-off to begin with, fell on hard times. It is remarkable that she kept studying, supported figuratively by her mother and materially by an instructor who strongly believed in Helene's talent. The Art Society was followed by private lessons and independent study.

By the late 1870s Schjerfbeck was gaining a good reputation in Finland, which led to her receiving a travel grant from the Russian Imperial Senate. In a gutsy move, she packed and left for additional formal instruction in Paris, where she knew no one and was herself unknown.

Life and Study Abroad:

She was successful there, refining her oil technique, acquainting herself with Impressionism and madly flirting with the Spanish Baroque. Schjerfbeck marketed herself untiringly at this time, exhibiting (and selling) as often as possible and taking numerous illustration jobs.

Her Paris years were punctuated by frequent artistically-purposed travel (to Florence and Prague, for two examples) and she was engaged to a British painter for a time. Dwindling health and funds put an end to the excitement, though, and Helene returned to Finland in 1890, to live with her mother in the latter's modest home in Hyvinkää.

A Career is (Re)Born:

Anyone else might have been content to putter around the district, painting occasionally and remembering what had once been. Helene, however, hadn't had her ambitions crushed. She kept in touch, corresponded with her numerous contacts, continued to market herself and, though it took nearly thirty more years, achieved a second "discovery" in 1917 when the Finnish dealer Gösta Stenman mounted Helene's first solo exhibition.

Never again reduced to obscurity, Schjerfbeck was able to work steadily for the next three decades, watch her name become relatively famous and enjoy the first stable finances of her life.

Summing Things Up:

We know her best as a brutally honest self-portraitist, based on (almost literally) bare bones views of herself in her 80s. It is also important to remember that, along with her tremendous native talent, she possessed vision, courage and persistence. Helene Schjerfbeck's career spanned parts of eight decades, and she moved herself from her initial, realistic history paintings to that abstract style over the course of them. Only when death intervened did she stop stretching the boundaries of her work. That is the mark of a true master artist, and for it she is to be admired.

Important Works:

  • The Wounded Soldier, 1880
  • The Convalescent, 1888
  • The Old Manor, 1901
  • At Home, 1903
  • The Still Life in Green, 1930

See pictures of Helene Schjerfbeck's work in the Special Exhibition Gallery - Helene Schjerfbeck.

Date and Place of Death:

January 23, 1946, Saltsjöbaden, Sweden

Saltsjöbaden, an area near Stockholm which translates literally to "salt sea bath," held a health spa/sanatorium in which Helene Schjerfbeck spent the last two years of her life. While it cannot be definitively said that its therapeutic reputation worked wonders on the artist's health, she did experience one final, spectacular burst of creativity after moving there and before her death.

How To Pronounce "Schjerfbeck":

    sheriff·beck

You will note that "Schjerfbeck" is a Swedish, not a Finnish surname. Helene's paternal grandfather had emigrated to Finland in the late 18th-century, and the Schjerfbeck family settled in an area of Helsinki populated by a Swedish-speaking minority.

Quotes From Helene Schjerfbeck:

  • "Now that I so seldom have the strength to paint, I have started on a self-portrait. This way the model is always available, although it isn't at all pleasant to see oneself." - letter to a friend, 1921

  • “If I only could see the Goya of my youth again! – dangerous – every moment our mind alters according to our mood, every year we demand more and more – and yet it was maybe instinctively right. Not everyone can bear with the first love of their youth." - letter to Einar Reuter, September 15, 1928

  • "And red is a difficult color, yet so unknown."

Sources and Further Reading

  • Ahtola-Moorhouse, Leena. "Schjerfbeck, Helene [Helena] (Sofia)"
    Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, (3 August 2007).

  • Ahtola-Moorhouse, Leena; Helene Schjerfbeck.
    Helene Schjerfbeck (exh. cat.).
    Helsinki : Finnish National Gallery Ateneum, 1992.

  • Bergström, Lea; Sue Cedercreutz-Suhonen.
    Helene Schjerfbeck. Malleja Modeller Models.
    Helsinki : WSOY, 2004.

  • Gorgen, Annabelle and Hubertus Gaaner (eds.)
    Helene Schjerfbeck (exh. cat.).
    München : Hirmer Verlag, 2007.

  • Varnedoe, Kirk. Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism
    in Scandinavian Painting, 1880-1910
    (exh. cat.).
    Brooklyn : Brooklyn Museum, 1982.

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