Helene Schjerfbeck – Pioneering modernism in Finland

Mother and child, 1886 by Helene Schjerfbeck
Mother and child, 1886 @ Ateneum Art Museum – Public Domain

The first time I had contact with Helene Schjerfbeck’s work was through this Observer article/review about the exhibition that the Royal Academy (London) was about to open in July 2019.

I remember being completely taken by her “modern realism”, the quietness and melancholy that emanates from her paintings. 

There’s a sense of calm and stillness in her paintings that makes me want to stop and contemplate. I almost get a feeling of the cold, snowy environment in which she lived long years of her life, not because her paintings are lifeless, but because you get some sort of introspection, of the quietness from the warm insides.

Girl Reading (Seated Girl), 1904 / Costume Picture II, 1909 @ Ateneum Art Museum – Public Domain

Developing her style

Helene Schjerfbeck was born in Helsinki, Finland on July 10, 1862. 

She started to paint early in her childhood and started to attend the Finnish Art Society School of Drawing at 11. After graduating, she studied French oil painting techniques and in 1880, went to Paris. Travelling would be the source of great pleasure and inspiration throughout her career. She visited Florence, Brittany, St.Ives and many different places in France.

During the time Schjerfbeck lived in Hyvinkää, Finland, she produced many portraits of women: including her mother, schoolgirls, residents and also self-portraits. She painted various self-portraits throughout her career and we can see her style evolving as she experimented with techniques along the years.

Self-Portrait with back mouth, 1939 / Self-Portrait, 1912 / Self-Portrait, black background, 1915 @ Ateneum Art Museum – Public Domain

Schjerfbeck’s works were influenced by the French impressionist’s which she had contact while in Paris, and later on, it changes to expressionism and we can even recognize some abstraction in her later works.

Her subjects also brought new influences from magazines, catalogues, and fashion.

Girl from Eydtkuhnen II, 1927 / Rosy-Cheeked Girl, 1927 / Blond Woman, 1925 @ Ateneum Art Museum – Public Domain

Helene Schjerfbeck is the most important painter in Finish art with her works shown in major exhibitions in Scandinavia and around Europe. 

I hope she can be seen in more places around the world, but you can visit the Ateneum Art Museum website and explore their collection of her works without leaving home!

Let me know if you already knew Schjerfbeck work and your impressions in the comments or on Social Media! 

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