The trail-blazing Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck held her second separate exhibition at the Stenman Art Salon in Stockholm in September 1937. The art critic Gotthard Johansson wrote: “She has sought out the person in people. In her art, the human countenance is an expression of the inner qualities – an ideal image, if you prefer.” The exhibition displayed 93 works from a period of sixty years, 1877–1937. Schjerfbeck never saw the exhibition herself.
One of the works on display was Framför spegeln (“Before the mirror”), which was painted in summer 1937. “I’m painting something with a lot of arm – movement. Saw it in the window right opposite,” she wrote on 15 July to her friend Einar Reuter, to whom she had previously written – on 23 June – “yesterday, I found the model I wanted”. This was Hjördis, in her twenties at that time, who had previously modelled for the artist.
Schjerfbeck studied the interpretation of the upper arm intently in an effort to catch the lightness of the movement of the body, and completed numerous sketches. In her work process, she highlighted her admiration of Degas, to which she added Toulouse-Lautrec’s tenderness of heart for the model. The painting is important in her oeuvre, and a precise result of a constant process of reduction to capture the essence of the subject.
Helene Schjerfbeck painted almost every day during the 70 years she was an active artist. She is known for her bold initiatives, her gifted technique, and her eye for balance and excitement in her method of choosing her subjects. She is one of the most important Nordic artists from the early 1900s, and an artist who also showed a lot of personal strength. As such, she continues to fascinate posterity.
Helene Schjerfbeck began her artistic training at the tender age of 11 at the Finnish Art Society Drawing School in Helsinki. She left four years later, in the spring of 1877, with the highest grades and a scholarship. As she was just 15 at that time, she was too young to travel abroad with her artist friends, so she remained in Finland and continued her artistic development at Adolf von Becker’s painters’ academy in Helsinki. She spent two years studying the technique of oil painting in the French style of Becker. She turned 18 in autumn 1880 and could finally travel to Paris. She studied at the Académie Colarossi from 1881 and during every visit she made to Paris until 1889. While in Paris, she generally lived in simple attic flats, sometimes in the company of other female painters. As she was not blessed with a large fortune, she lived off travel scholarships and the money she earned from the few paintings she sold. In the summer, she liked to paint in Brittany or back home in Finland. In 1887 she travelled to St. Ives, in Cornwall, England, where she created her breakthrough work – Konvalescenten (The Convalescent) – in spring 1888. This painting was chosen to represent Finland at the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris. During the 1880s, she often held exhibitions of collections in Finland, and in 1887–1890 she put on shows in England.
In the early 1890s, Schjerfbeck painted in St. Petersburg, Vienna and Florence and travelled to the mountains of Norway. Financial problems then obliged her to accept a teaching post at her old school in Helsinki. Conditions were tough for her, and she moved to Hyvinge in 1902, leaving the artistic scene in Helsinki behind to follow her own path at her own pace. She remained in touch with the art world through art journals, literature and her artist friends. In addition to her mother tongue – Swedish – she was fluent in French and English, but not Finnish. She visited no exhibitions for 15 years. Her first separate exhibition in September 1917 was organised by Gösta Stenman in Helsinki and attracted a lot of attention. Although the Finnish civil war in 1918 left its mark on everyone’s consciousness, Helene Schjerfbeck still achieved recognition, and she was awarded the Order of the White Rose of Finland in 1920.
In 1925, Schjerfbeck moved to the coast at Ekenäs, where she continued her experimental painting. As she lacked models, Stenman encouraged her to use her old paintings. She created new, reduced versions of them – sometimes of the whole painting, but usually of a central feature. She often used her own face in her winter work. She was an aesthete, but had no time for beautification. Artists “who embellish themselves are dull”, she wrote to her cousin Dora in 1944. She fled the latter stages of World War II, and travelled to Stockholm in February 1944 with the assistance of Gösta Stenman. She continued to paint until the very end in January 1946, working on an easel positioned next to her bed.
Lena Holger is one of the leading experts in Helene Schjerfbeck’s oeuvre. She is an author and a former Senior Curator at The National Museum in Stockholm. She has studied the art of Helene Schjerfbeck for 40 years, written books and articles about her, and produced several exhibitions of her work – the first of which was held at Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde Estate in 1987.
Helene Schjerfbeck Framför spegeln
Signed. Painted in 1937. Oil on canvas.
85 x 69 cm
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