If you have never heard of Helene Schjerfbeck, you are not alone. She was virtually buried in art history and recently resurfaced with a large retrospective at the Royal Academy of Art in London, over one hundred years after she first exhibited there. I first came across her work at an exhibition of Scandinavian Art in Vancouver, BC a decade ago. It was so apparent to me how little acknowledgment the artists from that region have been given in the history of Western Art. Since then, the discovery of the work of Swedish artist, Hilma Af Klimt turned the art world upside down and shed light on Scandinavian art. Her large scale abstract paintings predated all of the known early European abstract artists.
Helene Schjerfbeck was born in 1862 in Helsinki. At the age of four, she fell down the front steps of the family’s house and broke her hip. It was while she was convalescing that her father gave her pencils and she started to draw. She later said: “When you give a child a pencil, you give her an entire world.”
Her talent was spotted by a teacher when she was 11 and she won a scholarship to join the drawing school of Helsinki’s Finnish Art Society. In 1915, the Ateneum commissioned a self-portrait for an exhibition. She was pleased to be the only female artist invited to participate in being a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement in Finland. (which was the first European country to give women the vote.)
Finland had been part of Sweden until it was annexed in 1809 by Russia and did not become independent until 1917. The country was recruiting talent to establish a national identity through art. She was granted a further scholarship to study Plein-air realism and History painting. In 1879, she produced the painting of a wounded soldier in the snow that would launch her career.
She went on to study at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, where she exhibited. She was well-traveled and was an active part of the artists’ colonies at Pont-Aven where Gauguin lived among many English artists at St Ives in Cornwall...
Scholars have put her self-portraits in the company of Holbein, Goya, Rembrandt, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud.
Her self-portraits are her most extraordinary achievement and she painted these throughout her life. While keeping her independence from any modern art movements, she was conceptually ahead of her time and very much part of the European mainstream early in her life. She returned to Finland to care for her mother and led a quiet life in a small seaside town outside Helsinki, where she continued her art quietly the rest of her life.
I recommend this article written to accompany her RCA exhibition in London, for an in-depth look at this interesting artist.
Lesson; Some of the students chose to create still life pastel drawings inspired by HS, and the others did portrait studies.