Helene Schjerfbeck began as a precociously skilled, slightly melancholic late-19th-century academic realist. She finished as a painter whose sublime abstract images are an exquisite harmony of pure paint and cryptic description.

Helene Schjerfbeck was born on July 10, 1862, into an originally Swedish family living in Helsinki when Finland was part of the Tsarist Russian Empire. At 4 years old the toddler Helene fell down a flight of stairs and injured her hip. The fall left her with a distinct and life-long limp and and meant she couldn’t attend school.

Perhaps her fall was the catalyst for her self determination. A savior came with a present of pencils and paper – the gift of “the whole world”, she would write.

Helen quickly became keenly involved in the visual arts. Adolf von Becker, an influential member of the Finnish Society of Fine Arts, enrolled the limping 11 year old in the drawing school in 1873. He saw such promise in her that he covered her fees himself. At this school Helene met and made lifelong friends of fellow Finnish artists Helena Westermarck, Maria Wiik and Ada Thilen.

An 18 year old Schjerfbeck in 1880.
Just about to set off to Paris.

There was (of course) more set backs and struggle. Her father, Svante, an office manager, died of tuberculosis in 1876 and her mother, Olga had to take in lodgers to make ends meet. Despite this inauspicious start, Helen graduated from the Finnish Society of Fine Arts less than a year after her father’s death.

As the 19th century drew to an end, Finland was beginning to put artists of both sexes on an equal footing. With a grant from the Imperial Russian Senate in her pocket Helene set off for Paris, where she trained (with Helena Westermarck) at the Parisian Colarossi academy (1881-1884), before staying in Concarneau and Pont-Aven, a fashionable artistic colony even before the arrival of legends like Paul Gauguin, Charles Laval and Emile Bernard in 1886.

Girl with a Madonna, (1881)

Unsurprisingly, her work from this time was distinctly French-influenced realist as well as plein air painting. She often produced historical paintings too. What is surprising is that alongside these picturesque, conventional scenes, she experimented. From this period on, she began her own, more daring kind of painting.

Artists at the pension by Rue de Baigmeux in Montparnasse, (1881–1882). At the back from left are the Finnish painters, Aukasti Uotila and Amélie Lundahl. Sitting on the sofa next to Helene (circled) are the Austrian painter Marianne Preindlsberger-Stokes and Swedish artist Per Ekström. Kneeling on the left with the beret is August Hagborg the brother of Otto who would get engaged to Helene in Pont-Aven, Brittany in 1885. The others are unknown.
Two Profiles (Marianne Preindlsberger-Stokes in front), 1881
Dancing shoes, (1882)
Clothes Drying, (1883)
Infanta Maria Teresia, a copy after Velázquez, (1894)
La Porte (1884)

In the chapel of Trèmolo near the village of Pont-Aven in Brittany, Schjerfbeck produced an anomaly, a painting singularly striking for its spare quality, its absence of any perspectival references, and its monochromaticity. La Porte (1884). The Door.

This rough and spontaneous sparceness, perhaps fuelled and inspired by much French en plein air painting, would evolve, become hers. It would make her unique, and in the future Finland’s national day for the painted arts would be held on her birthday, July 10.

In late Autumn 1883, Helene got engaged to to the the mediocre Swedish painter and high diving enthusiast, Otto Hagborg, who also lived in Pont-Aven in the winter and spring of 1883–1884. The engagement came to a cruel end in 1885 when a problem with Helene’s hip led the Hagborg’s family to suspect tuberculosis. The hip issue was a hangover from her childhood fall. Otto swiftly called it off. Helene would never marry.

Mother and Child, (1886)
La Convalescente, (1888)

Helene swiftly separated herself from formal apprenticeship and standard subjects, whilst still continuing to practice a consensual style for the works which she presented in competitions: painted during a 2 year sojourn in Cornwall, England, La Convalescente (1888) won a bronze medal at the 1889 World Fair, at a time when Gauguin, Bernard, Laval and Louis Anquetin were unveiling synthetism, a methos of painting in 2 dimensions using flat patterns and from memory. It’s not known if, while then in Paris, she visited the Volpini Exhibition – the first show of the Impressionist and Synthetist group. In the wake of the World Fair, however, her style became increasingly coherent. Her wavering between naturalism and open air painting tended to disappear in favour of a linear painting style, where areas of pure colour replaced decorative arabesques. 

Self-Portrait, (1884 – 1885)
28 year old Schjerfbeck in 1890.

Helen bounced back and forth between France and Finland, painting, painting, painting and making money by continuing to put her paintings in the Finnish Art Society’s exhibitions, and by illustrating books.

In 1890 she began teaching in Finland at the Art Society drawing school. By 1901 she’d become too ill to teach. She resigned and on 1 June 1902 moved 50km north of Helsinki to Hyvinkää, a little railway town reknowned for it’s sanitarium – all the while she was caring for her sick mother who lived with her. Helene turned 40 the same summer.

After 1910, having returned once and for all to Finland, she tirelessly took up what where by now her signature motifs, producing several versions of the same picture a decade or two apart. Her output was confined to three or four genres (portraits, still lifes, landscapes, and re-interpretations of old pictures, including El Greco’s), abandoning the great symbolic, historical and narrative subjects, typical of the nationalist Finnish painting artists like Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

She focused on studying and painting her entourage; her mother, her neighbours, schoolgirls, local workers and on self-portraits and on evolving her own take on the French modernist style.

This would be her life’s work.  Sometimes she was only able to work for an hour or two a day; yet work she did, and relentlessly, leaving us nearly 1,000 works.

Fragment, c. 1904
(the distressed look is totally deliberate)
The Seamstress (The Working Woman), 1905
Costume Picture I – Girl with Orange, The Baker’s Daughter, (1908 – 1909)
The School Girl II – Girl in Black, (1908)
Costume Picture II, (1909)
My mother, (1909)
Girls Reading, (1907)
Self-Portrait, (1912)
Under the Linden, (1911)
Red Apples, (1915)
Self-Portrait, Black Background, (1915)

Schjerfbeck lived by the railroad tracks in the little spa town for more than 20 years. Here she painted her most important portraits of children and women. These portraits of Hyvinkää locals are what established Schjerfbeck as one of Finland’s leading modernists. She almost always painted portraits using a model (only rarely would she paint from memory or from a photograph) and during the early years in Hyvinkää, she frequently painted her mother (who would die in 1927).

Many of the neighbourhood children that appear in Schjerfbeck’s portraits also helped with household chores and were sent to fetch food from the railway station restaurant.

Some of the women that Schjerfbeck painted were her neighbours and lived on the same road. Another sitter was one of her landladies. She painted the portraits of the daughters of the local squire, the station master, the head gardener and the baker.

Schjerfbeck was tremendously stylish. In the self-portraits she wears tailored coats, high collars and fine jewellery, sporting a concise, crop-haired look towards the end of her life.

She subscribed to Marie Claire (first published in 1937) and had her clothes shipped over from the Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

Circus Girl, (1916)
Girl from California I, (1919)
The Gipsy Woman ; The Romani Woman, (1919)
The Old Brewery ; Composition, (1918)
Smiling Girl – Katri, (1921)

The model for Smiling Girl (1921) was Katri Mäkinen (1910-1989). Katri was the youngest daughter of blacksmith Juho Kustaa Mäkinen. Schjerfbeck painted her for the first time in 1913 together with her sister Martta. For over a decade, the four Mäkinen children were among Schjerfbeck’s favorite models. When they weren’t having their picture painted they helped the artist with household chores. The sisters, Elma, Martta and Katri cleaned the house and fetched food. Their brother, Einari “the fire wood boy”, chopped wood. Katri was Schjerfbeck’s favorite model and, as the Mäkinens lived on the other side of the garden fence, it was easy for Katri to sit for the artist. Later Katri recollected that she earned one Finnish mark per hour for a sitting and “all I had to do was look like an angel”.

Schjerfbeck returned to her earlier portraits of Katri, re-working versions of them as late as 1945, the year before she died.

Factory Workers on the Way to Work (c.1921-22)
Blonde Girl – Girl with Blue Bow (c.1923)

The sitter Saara Annuli Huhtala’s angelic pose, recalling the faces of the Quattrocento Florentine painter Fra Lippi, belies her difficult family circumstances. Annuli, as she was affectionately known, was one of eight children of a railway worker in Hyvinkää who fell in the Finnish civil war. Her mother struggled to raise the family, and Schjerfbeck helped support her by taking Annuli on as a model. Annuli also earned pocket money for her family by dancing in the local cinema. A photo of 1921 (left) shows her on stage wearing a bow, which perhaps inspired Blonde Girl – Girl with Blue Bow , painted circa 1923. Her golden hair and golden aura cannot hide her withdrawn and somewhat resigned expression not unlike that of Edgar Degas’s sculpture The Little Dancer, (1880) which Schjerfbeck no doubt knew.

Blond Woman, (1925)
Finnish Actor, Matti Kiianlinna, (1926) (he became a friend of Helene until his untimely death in 1931
Helene’s friend, Matti Kiianlinna, (1900-1931), in a promotional handbill as Daniel Hjort in the play of the same name by Finnish playwright and poet, Josef Julius Wecksell. Daniel Hjort is considered one of the best historical plays ever written in Swedish.

Unmarried, visibly and uncomfortably lame Helene spent her adult life living in relative seclusion in a succession of obscure Finnish villages.

Sometime before 1926, she moved the 150km from Hyvinkää to one such village – Tammisaari. There she met and became friendly with the actor, Matti Kiianlinna. Kiianlinna’s father was the director of Tammisaari forced labor facility, a camp established for imprisoned Red Guards at the end of the civil in May 1918.

There’s some suggestion of a romance between the two – at least in the 2014 play Helene S. – With Love which portrays Helene in her old age suggestfully fantasising about their relationship. It’s unlikely. Helene was 64 and Kiianlinna was 26 at the time she painted his portrait, but who knows?

Kiianlinna died young, at the beginning of March 1931 in Tampere from pneumonia caused by influenza.

The Fortune-Teller – Woman in Yellow Dress, (1926)
The Seamstress, Half-Length Portrait – The Working Woman, (1927)
The Picture Book, (1927)
Girl from Eydtkuhne II, (1927)
Portrait of Jalo Sihtola, sketch, (1928)
Sihtola was a Finnish industrialist and art patron
Spanish Girl, (1928)
Attributed to El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), Portrait of a Lady, John G. Johnson Collection, (1917), Philadelphia Museum of Art.

By her own account Schjerfbeck only ever saw one painting by El Greco in the flesh and another that might have been a forgery, and yet the experience must have left a profound impression on her as the work of the 16th-century Spanish master was to become a major influence on her work. As early as 1905, no doubt having read an article entitled ‘El Greco’ published in L’Art et les Artistes that same year, Schjerfbeck wrote to her friend and fellow artist Maria Wiik that she ‘would like to make up El Greco’s palette: white, black, yellow ochre, and cinnabar’.

Schjerfbeck was drawn to Greco’s portraits by their sheer drama, use of colour and chiaroscuro, and by his manner of creating intense focus on facial expression – reaching the what she called the ‘deep layers of the soul’.

It was in her reinterpretation of the work of artists she admired that Schjerfbeck’s originality lies. At times, she looked to Greco to express deep inner anguish, and even neurasthenia – a medical term much in parlance at the turn of the century to describe mental disorder or stress; at other times, as in Spanish Girl, (1928), to convey serenity and love. Here, the soulful yet submissive gaze takes on quasi-religious overtones, that of a benevolent Madonna, bringing us closer to that which is innermost in our humanity.

Profile of a Woman – from memory, (1932)
Green Apples and Champagne Glass, (1934)


Trees and Sunset, Hiidenvesi, (1942)
Daguerreotype of Svante Schjerfbeck, father of Helene Schjerfbeck c. 1860s
My Father, (1943)

It’s easy to imagine. With a purpose impossibly sweet and infinitely melancholy, the 81 year old painter takes out an old oval Daguerreotype print of her father. The father who’d died when she was a girl of 14. She sits at an easel in whatever lonely nursing home, spa or sanitorium she’s living in, her father close by. With her ancient yet sure hand, she immortalises him, remembers him, in her soft, angled, minimalist, modernist Schjerfbeck perfection.

Nurse I – Kaija Lahtinen, (1943)
Finnish Nurse III – Ester Räihä, (1943)

Working in solitude for her whole life, Schjerfbeck pursued an itinerary that first dazzled and popped, then graduated into quietude and introspection. Her sole contact with the art world was via magazines sent by friends. A painter monk (or nun) with a two-pronged laser focus on the relentless study of the human figure and a personal quest for unique solutions.

As the years passed, Schjerfbeck travelled less and less. When a family matter arose she would return to her home city of Helsinki. She spent most of 1920 in the small village of Ekenäs, by 1921 she was back living in Hyvinkää. For about a year, Schjerfbeck moved to a farm in Tenala to avoid what became known as the Winter War – the Soviet invasion of Finland on 30 November 1939 which began three months after the outbreak of WW2. At the age of 80, she returned to Ekenäs in the middle of 1940. 

She then sought a series of sanctuaries, first moving into a nursing home, staying for less than a year before moving to a sanatorium in Luontola. She painted her nurses, masterful minimalist landscapes, portraits of her nurses and a series of haunting self portraits. Washed out, scraped and angular what they lose in colour they gain in form. Geometrized, blurred, scratched, twisted, and crossed out, the faces’ features reduced to a sombre wraith-like effigy, this is a painter’s final encounter with herself. She sees an abstract, modernist ghost with a dab of lipstick on a gaping mouth. Death foretold. 

In her self-portraits of old age, Schjerfbeck’s expressionism found its full voice. More than the aged Pierre Bonnard, and more violently than Edvard Munch in the 1940s, she emphasized her deteriorating body by inflicting a deformation on her face, a destructive simplification which was abrasive, acid-like. She looks confused, lost and trumphant at once.

In 1944 she moved into the Saltsjöbaden spa hotel in Sweden and continued to paint actively right up until her death in January 1946.

Today, one of her scratchy, magical canvases will cost you the price of a house her works are prized by collectors and sell at auction for up to £500,000. Yet she’s only “famous in Finland”. However, the world is catching up with Helene Schjerfbeck. In 2003, the Finnish novelist and poet, Rakel Liehu wrote Helene, a biographical novel which has now been adapted into a feature film of the same name. Helene (2020) was directed by Antti Jokinen.

Perhaps the best tribute to the enduring power of Schjerfbeck (in Finland at least) comes from the most skilled and prolific forger in Finnish art history, Veli “Brother” Seppä, who said about forging her paintings, “”By encroaching on Schjerfbeck I felt like I had violated something sacred. It was if I had broken into a sacristy to steal the church silvers.”

Sources : “Helene Schjerfbeck and her models”, Lea Bergström, curator at Hyvinkää City Museum, The Guardian Art Review, Helene Schjerfbeck review – a strange and silent beauty by Laura Cumming, Sotherby’s Auction House, Helene Schjerfbeck, Finnish Artist by Clément Siberchicot for AWARE Archives of Women Artists Research and Exhibitions, Wikipedia, National Gallery of Finland.

Self-Portrait with Red Spot, (1944)
Self-Portrait, en face I, (1945)

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