The Subtle Brilliance of This “Rediscovered” Female Artist

The effervescent Helene Schjerfbeck

Christopher P Jones
6 min readJun 1, 2023


Self-portrait with Black Background (1915) by Helene Schjerfbeck. Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki, Finland. Image source WikiArt

The artist Helene Schjerfbeck (roughly pronounced “sharf-beck”) has the appeal of not only being recently “rediscovered”, but also on closer investigation demonstrates how great painters possess a restless appetite for transformation.

Schjerfbeck’s painting career began in the style of French naturalists like Jules Breton and Jules Bastien-Lepage. By the end of her life she had achieved a radical style of portraiture that constitute some of the most alluring and unorthodox paintings of the last century.

Take the image shown above, titled Self-portrait with Black Background. It was painted in 1915 when Schjerfbeck was in her early 50s. Her intrigued expression — with chin raised and lips closed — is rendered with brilliant minimalism, drifting astutely between clarity and fogginess. As a painting, it clearly shows an awareness of avant-garde developments in art whilst also achieving a wholly original aesthetic effect.

Constant Evolution

It seems hard to believe that Schjerfbeck isn’t more celebrated. Well-regarded in her native Finland, it wasn’t until a 2019 exhibition in London’s Royal Academy that she came to much wider attention.