Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Mademoiselles Who Dabble With Paints: Helene Schjerfbeck

(This is the last post in the series of nineteenth century Finnish women painters. The first three can be found here, here and here.)

"The life we live inside ourselves is always stormy."
Helene Schjerfbeck, 1928

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) is my own favorite among the "mamselles" who dabble with paints. As all the others in this series, she hailed from the Swedish-speaking upper classes, but her family was quite poor:
Born Helena Sofia in Helsinki, Finland to Svante Schjerfbeck and Olga Johanna (née Printz), Schjerfbeck showed talent at an early age. By the time Schjerfbeck was eleven, she was enrolled at the Finnish Art Society drawing school. Since the Schjerfbeck family was not very wealthy, Adolf von Becker, a man who saw promise in Schjerfbeck, got her into the school tuition free (Ahtola-Moorhouse). It was at the Finnish Art Society drawing school that Schjerfbeck met Helena Westermarck.
Schjerfbeck’s father died of tuberculosis on February 2, 1876. This brought even more financial problems to the Schjerfbeck house, leading Schjerfbeck’s mother to take in boarders so that they could get by. A little over a year after her father’s death, Schjerfbeck graduated from the Finnish Art Society drawing school. She continued her education, with Westermarck, at a private academy run by Adolf von Becker, which utilised the University of Helsinki drawing studio. Professor G. Asp paid for her tuition to Becker’s private academy. There, Becker himself taught her French oil painting techniques.
In 1879, at the age of 17, Schjerfbeck began to be recognized for her art. She won third prize in a competition organised by the Finnish Art Society. Her art career started to blossom when some of her work was displayed in an annual Finnish Art Society exhibition in 1880.


She set off to Paris later that year after receiving a travel grant from the Imperial Russian Senate.
In Paris, Schjerfbeck painted with Helena Westermarck, then left to study with Léon Bonnat at Mme Trélat de Vigny’s studio. Schjerfbeck then moved in 1881 to the Académie Colarossi, where she studied once again with Westermarck. The Imperial Senate gave her another scholarship, which she used to spend a couple of months in Meudon, and then a few more months in Concarneau, Brittany.


In 1884 she was back at the Académie Colarossi with Westermarck, but this time they were working there. She was given more money to travel by a man from the Finnish Art Society and in 1887 she traveled to St Ives, England. There she painted The Convalescent, which won the bronze medal at the 1889 Paris World Fair. The painting was later bought by the Finnish Art Society.

Here is the example many have in mind when they argue that genius WILL out! No matter how poor one is, someone will recognize those great talents and lend a helping hand.

And, indeed, Schjerfbeck did get financial assistance because of her obvious talents. But that those talents were spotted in the first place required her to be in the right place at the right time, and there her upper class origins, however impoverished, helped her.

None of this is aimed at denying her remarkable genius. She had a long career (though a poorly paid one) during which she moved from style to style with breath-taking skill and ease. She is recognized as both a realist and an expressionist but I find it hard to pigeon-hole her, and so do others:
She was supposedly a Realist, a Romanticist, an Impressionist, a Naturalist, a Symbolist, an Expressionist and a wildly ahead-of-her-time Abstractist. Truthfully, there were elements of all of these in her work as the decades progressed and one would not be incorrect using any of these terms. But in the end she stripped herself of all save that which symbolized 83-years' worth of learning to see.

Schjerfbeck's health was always poor and she walked with a limp. From 1901 onwards she mostly lived in the country, isolating herself and learning new fashions in arts from books. That isolation may explain why Schjerfbeck employed the self-portrait to an astonishing degree.

Her best-known realistic painting is "The Convalescent", painted in 1888:

"Maria" was painted in 1906:

And the "Circus Girl" in 1916

"Lilies of the Valley in a Blue Vase II" came in 1929:

And "Still Life in Green" in 1930:

The year before her death she painted "Three Pears in a Vase":

I have not included the many pictures which use other approaches*, because I want to get to her self-portraits in this post. Here are some** of them in chronological order:






Self-Portrait With Black Mouth, 1939



Schjerfbeck was a seeker in arts. The power in her work is in the dialogue they seem to want to have with the viewer. What strikes me most about her work is its absolute honesty, on some deep, deep level.

In the last self-portraits she paints the death emerging from her face for us to see. Yet I don't see those paintings as depicting fear or sadness. They are almost clinical in that odd honesty, and yet "clinical" is not at all the correct term. She is painting what is, failing health, sadness and all, with great clarity.

From a feminist angle*** the story of Schjerfbeck reminds us of the intersection gender with other forces in a person's life. She had great talent but suffered from poverty and ill health, and being a woman didn't help her in earning a living from her art. According to some sources she could hardly give her paintings away in mid-life, until two "white knights" came to her help and promoted her art.

She shared the same isolation as most of the other women painters I have covered in this series. To what extent it was based on exclusion by others and to what extent it was an earnest desire is hard to tell, because the latter may have been influenced by the former. It may also be that a relative isolation from the wider society was necessary for women painters of that era, to avoid those coded messages about how women should live, paint or not to paint.

*Some places for more pictures: Here, here and here.
**According to this source, she is thought to have painted around forty self-portraits, half of them in the last three years of her life. The self-portraits were not initially intended for public consumption.
***Then there are the more art-centered feminist thoughts on her work, such as these concerning one exhibition of her work:
Under the influence of Art Nouveau, and possibly also Japanese art (she called her first design Japon), Schjerfbeck also designed stylized patterns for tapestries and cushions, but those are not represented in the exhibition.

Even though the design of needlework patterns was probably a contributing factor in Schjerfbeck's simplification and stylization of forms, the absence of such designs and artefacts, which are often associated with conservative and inferior – women's – handicrafts, may be linked with the aspiration of the exhibition designers, be it consciously or unconsciously, to show the innovation, originality and modernism of the artist's painting, and as such its relevance in the art historical canon. Annabelle Görgen's article "Helene Schjerfbeck – a telling silence" seems to point in this direction. Exactly because female artists are more often seen as followers than as innovators, such an interpretation offers a surprising and refreshing view, which is hardly an inappropriate exaggeration, but is convincingly substantiated by in-depth analyses. Such a view, or rather such an aspiration, does not question the truism that innovative art is superior, though, which has had detrimental consequences for the assessment and reception of many a female artist (who were innovative by their choice for an artistic career in the first place).