The Subtle Brilliance of This “Rediscovered” Female Artist

The effervescent Helene Schjerfbeck

Christopher P Jones
6 min readJun 1

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.

Born in 1862, Schjerfbeck began her art studies at the age of 11, and by the time of her death aged 83 she had painted well over 1,000 pictures that traversed almost a century of artistic styles.

Left: Self-portrait (1885) by Helene Schjerfbeck. Oil on canvas. 50 × 40.5 cm. Ateneum, Helsinki, Finland. Image source WikiArt. Right: Self-portrait (1939) by Helene Schjerfbeck. Oil on canvas. 40 × 28.2 cm. Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland. Image source Wikimedia Commons.

These two self-portraits make the case. The first was painted by Schjerfbeck in 1885; the second on the eve of the Second World War nearly 55 years later.

In the earlier work, the loose brushstrokes of the background and her dress cooperate with the more carefully painted details of her face. The handling of volume — that is, the palpable fullness of her cheeks, the clarity and bulk of her nose — provide the painting with vivacity, a sense of a real-life person sitting (and painting) right there before us.