Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Helene Schjerfbeck ~ An Interrupted Narrative

‘Cornwall is the most beautiful place I have ever seen’ - a letter home

The unique quality of sunlight in St Ives Bay has long been an enticement to artists.  In the nineteenth century, painters from all over Europe who wished to adopt the ‘plein air’ fashion found that Cornwall’s mild climate enabled them to work out of doors for longer than anywhere else in Britain. But it was primarily companionship which brought the Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck to St Ives.

She and her friend Marianne Stokes (neè Preindlsberger) had met in Paris in 1880, as art students. Born in 1862, Helene was a sickly child. At the age of four she suffered a fall which left her lame in one leg. A prolonged period of enforced inactivity led her to engage in drawing and painting. The young girl’s talent was spotted by a teacher whose encouragement enabled Helene to gain a place at art school, aged eleven. When her father died from tuberculosis two years later, her fees were paid by her tutor. Her early artistic promise was rewarded by travel scholarships provided by the Finnish government.

Invited to St Ives by Marianne in 1887, Helene rented a studio with a tower which provided delightful views across the rooftops to the coastline beyond. She attended informal weekly classes in landscape painting with Marianne’s husband Adrian Stokes, one of the foremost painters in St Ives at that time. Whilst the town had a cosmopolitan atmosphere, Helene spoke no English and felt conscious of being an outsider. She was able to converse with the Stokeses in French. Furthermore her recent experience of a blighted love affair with an unknown English painter cast a shadow over her time in Cornwall.

The Convalescent 1888
Oil on canvas
© Helsinki, Ateneumin Taidemuseo

In 1888 she completed The Convalescent which probably draws on her childhood experience. This work is an unsentimental depiction of a young girl wrapped in a blanket in a large wicker armchair, contemplating a green branch in a vase on a table before her. The buds on the branch seem to hold out the hope of recovery. The painting was awarded a bronze medal when it was exhibited at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. Chickens among Haystacks, also from her St Ives period, can be seen in the only public collection in the UK to hold her work, Penlee House Gallery. A hitherto unknown still life, Table Roses, was discovered in St Ives in 1999, selling at Sotheby’s to a private buyer for £23,000.

Chickens among Haystacks c.1887
Oil on panel
Penlee House Gallery
© The Artist’s Estate

Helene made a brief return visit to St Ives in 1889 with her compatriot and fellow painter Maria Wiik. Further travel in Europe exposed her to a wide range of influences. This consolidated her position as a painter ahead of her time, moving beyond realism and impressionism towards abstraction. However, after returning home, her health deteriorated and in 1902 she moved from Helsinki to a small village in the north where she lived, unmarried, for the next 40 years, caring for her ageing mother.

During this prolonged period of isolation, landscape painting gave way to still lifes and portraits carried out in a closeted interior rarely penetrated by the outside world. An iconic work from this period is The Seamstress, in which the sitter, typically for Schjerfbeck, is depicted in profile, though sometimes her subjects were even shown from the back. The stylised composition lends an air of austerity to the figure, lost in contemplation. Over time, the availability of models became restricted, so she confined herself to charting the years of decline through studies of the faces of her mother and herself.

The Seamstress 1926
Oil on canvas
© Helsinki, Ateneumin Taidemuseo

These later self-portraits make for uncomfortable viewing. As a narrative of the progression of a life of pain, there are obvious parallels with the experience of Frida Kahlo. The Mexican painter’s visual accounts of her body’s deterioration, hastened by a number of disastrous surgical interventions, were presented with shocking clarity. Helene Schjerfbeck, by contrast, confined her representations to the upper body and facial expression which reflected her suffering as advancing years increased her infirmity. These powerful images offer an insight into the melancholy recesses of a soul turned inward.

Self-Portrait on Black Background 1915
Oil on canvas
© Helsinki, Ateneumin Taidemuseo

Self-Portrait on Black Background confronts the viewer with an unflinching gaze.  Dispensing with detail, the painter reduces her features to their essence, focussing on the strong bone structure across which the ghostly white skin is stretched.  In the later Self-Portrait with Palette I the face has taken on the contours of a skull, colour is confined to black and grey and the sunken eyes express a mood of introspection and foreboding.

Self-Portrait with Palette I1937
Tempera and oil on canvas
© Stockholm, Moderna Museet

But for the enthusiasm of her dealer, Gosta Stenman, Helene’s work would almost certainly have been overlooked in a male-dominated art world. Having come across her work in 1913, his unwavering encouragement kept her creativity focussed. She managed to keep abreast of artistic developments in Europe thanks to art journals sent to her by her friends. As a result of Stenman’s efforts, the first solo exhibition of her work was held in Helsinki in 1917, followed by several shows in Sweden. A 1927 retrospective exhibition in St Ives included one work by the Finnish artist.

During the Second World War Helene was persuaded to move to the relative safety of Stockholm, and remained there until her death in 1946. She is now revered in the country of her birth, where the Finnish National Gallery in Helsinki alone holds 90 of her canvases. In 1986 she was represented in an exhibition of Scandinavian paintings at the Hayward Gallery in London. Filmed versions of her life were made in 1991 and 2002, and included footage of studio locations in St Ives. Since these were not translated into English, the productions failed to reach audiences beyond Scandinavia. In 2007 a major Schjerfbeck retrospective was mounted in Hamburg, travelling to The Hague and Paris, where critics described her as an ‘outstanding modernist artist’.

Belated international recognition, then, for an artist who forged a career for herself despite substantial obstacles. But wider acquaintance in the UK with the work of this remarkable painter is long overdue.

Copyright © 2010 Helen Hoyle


  1. Helena is the best finnish woman painter ever. A really genius. Congrats for your site.

  2. Good site. One of the best painters of her age, and still in need of full recognition.

  3. Dear Helen,

    I am a Finnish lady greatly attracted by Helene Schjerfbeck's art and works. I'll be visiting Cornwall and St Ives next spring. Does Helene's house where she painted still exist and whereabouts (somewhere on the hills?)it is (was) located? Thanking you most kindlyin advance. for your attention to my request.

    1. The tower studio at 4 Richmond Place which Helene Schjerfbeck rented during her time in St Ives was unfortunately demolished in the mid-1890s. But I am sure you will not be disappointed with St Ives - it is a beautiful town with a fascinating art historical background (and there is a great deal of contemporary art to be enjoyed there as well).