© Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum; Photo: Yehia Eweis

Helene Schjerfbeck

In pictures: Helene Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits and the evolution of her singular style

The Royal Academy of Arts' assistant curator Rebecca Bray talks us through five of the Finnish artist’s key works

The first major UK exhibition of the Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) opens this month at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Although lauded in Finland, and in some parts of Europe, Schjerfbeck still remains relatively unknown in the UK. The Royal Academy aims to introduce the artist to a wider audience with an exhibition of around 65 works, including 17 self-portraits that chart how Schjerfbeck’s style evolved over her long career. From French-influenced realism to her own brand of pared-back modernism, Schjerfbeck continued to experiment long into her career, even taking up lithography in her mid-70s at the suggestions of her art dealer Gösta Stenman.

The exhibition’s assistant curator Rebecca Bray picks out five key works that chart Schjerbeck’s long life and show her changing style.

• For a full preview of the exhibition, see The lauded Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck finally gets major UK show

Helene Schjerfbeck, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 20 July-27 October

Helene Schjerfbeck's Self-portrait (1884-85)
Helene Schjerfbeck's Self-portrait (1884-85). © Friends of Ateneum Collection. Ateneum Art Museum; Photo: Hannu Aaltonen

Self-portrait (1884-85): “Helene Schjerfbeck gazes out with youthful confidence in this early self-portrait. She already had a reputation as a precocious artistic talent, following the scholarship she was awarded to attend the Finnish Drawing School, aged only 11. In the early 1880s, prize money and travel grants allowed her to study in Paris and Brittany, where she was exposed to the French Naturalism that shaped her early work. Over the next few years she would also travel twice to St Ives in Cornwall, during which time she would exhibit paintings in London.”

Self-portrait (1912): “A significant change in Schjerfbeck’s life in 1902 ushered in a radical transformation in her paintings. After quitting her job teaching at the Finnish Drawing School and moving with her mother to the countryside outside Helsinki, Schjerfbeck felt liberated from the academic style she had been expected to work in. Instead she developed her own form of modernism, featuring pared-down compositions and colours, hazy contours, and a compelling sense of interiority and intimacy. She used her mother and local women as models, and when they were not available, she turned to the mirror; as she later wrote to a friend, ‘This way the model is always available, although it isn't at all pleasant to see oneself’.”
Helene Schjerfbeck's Self-portrait (1912). © Ateneum Art Museum; Photo: Yehia Eweis

Self-portrait (1912): “A significant change in Schjerfbeck’s life in 1902 ushered in a radical transformation in her paintings. After quitting her job teaching at the Finnish Drawing School and moving with her mother to the countryside outside Helsinki, Schjerfbeck felt liberated from the academic style she had been expected to work in. Instead she developed her own form of modernism, featuring pared-down compositions and colours, hazy contours, and a compelling sense of interiority and intimacy. She used her mother and local women as models, and when they were not available, she turned to the mirror; as she later wrote to a friend, ‘This way the model is always available, although it isn't at all pleasant to see oneself’.”

Self-portrait, Black Background (1915): “In 1914, the Finnish Art Society commissioned Schjerfbeck to paint a self-portrait, the only female artist in a group of 15 to be invited. Having considered herself excluded from the Finnish art establishment during her previous decade of artistic experimentation, Schjerfbeck felt vindicated by this commission. Her pride is evident in the self-assured tilt of her chin. She also took the unusual decision to inscribe, then partially erase, her name on the work in a reference to Hans Holbein, one of several Old Masters she admired and drew upon throughout her career. She called this her ‘tombstone inscription’.”
Helene Schjerfbeck's Self-portrait, Black Background (1915). © Ateneum Art Museum; Photo: Yehia Eweis

Self-portrait, Black Background (1915): “In 1914, the Finnish Art Society commissioned Schjerfbeck to paint a self-portrait, the only female artist in a group of 15 to be invited. Having considered herself excluded from the Finnish art establishment during her previous decade of artistic experimentation, Schjerfbeck felt vindicated by this commission. Her pride is evident in the self-assured tilt of her chin. She also took the unusual decision to inscribe, then partially erase, her name on the work in a reference to Hans Holbein, one of several Old Masters she admired and drew upon throughout her career. She called this her ‘tombstone inscription’.”

Self-portrait with palette (1937): “By the 1930s, Schjerfbeck’s reputation as one of Finland’s foremost contemporary artists was firmly cemented. She had exhibited around Europe, and an exhibition was being planned to tour in the United States, although the outbreak of the Second World War eventually prevented it. Despite this recognition Schjerfbeck avoided visitors and fame, preferring to focus on her art. She commented: ‘Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.’ Her self-identification as a painter is clear in this self-portrait, her palette brilliantly evoked through three bold daubs of colour.”
Helene Schjerfbeck's Self-portrait with palette (1937). © Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Self-portrait with palette (1937): “By the 1930s, Schjerfbeck’s reputation as one of Finland’s foremost contemporary artists was firmly cemented. She had exhibited around Europe, and an exhibition was being planned to tour in the United States, although the outbreak of the Second World War eventually prevented it. Despite this recognition Schjerfbeck avoided visitors and fame, preferring to focus on her art. She commented: ‘Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.’ Her self-identification as a painter is clear in this self-portrait, her palette brilliantly evoked through three bold daubs of colour.”

Self-portrait with Red Spot (1944): “In 1944 Schjerfbeck, terminally ill, was persuaded to avoid the fighting in Finland by moving to Sweden. During these last two years of her life, she painted and drew more than 20 self-portraits. These powerful images grow increasingly abstract, reflecting her interior state as she faced her own mortality. Her features dissolve into canvases that represent her life’s work. She died with her easel beside her bed on 23 January 1946 at the age of 83, having dedicated over 70 years to her art.”
Helene Schjerfbeck's Self-portrait with Red Spot (1944): © Ateneum Art Museum; Photo: Hannu Aaltonen

Self-portrait with Red Spot (1944): “In 1944 Schjerfbeck, terminally ill, was persuaded to avoid the fighting in Finland by moving to Sweden. During these last two years of her life, she painted and drew more than 20 self-portraits. These powerful images grow increasingly abstract, reflecting her interior state as she faced her own mortality. Her features dissolve into canvases that represent her life’s work. She died with her easel beside her bed on 23 January 1946 at the age of 83, having dedicated over 70 years to her art.”