Largely unknown abroad the Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) was and still is a national figure in Finland, attracting also a great deal of attention in the rest of Scandinavia. Schjerfbeck depicted landscapes, still lives but was foremost acknowledged for her intrusive portaits and self-portraits. From the 1880s until her death in 1946 these self-portaits played a pivotal role in her oeuvre. She started her career with academic realistically painted works common in the late nineteenth century which slowly developed to a more personal style characterized by a simplified and abstract formal language.
At a young age, Schjerfbeck had success and received recognition. A course in Paris gave her the opportunity to discover the work of Impressionists like Eduard Manet and Berthe Morisot. She was also able to travel to Florence, St Petersburg, Vienna and the United Kingdom. Tormented by health issues at the age of 28 Schjerfbeck was forced to return to Finland permanently, where she moved in with her mother in Hyvinkää, an isolated district. Domestic scenes with children and women reading or embroidering played a leading role in this period.
By omitting more and more details in later work she reached greater depth in her paintings and approached a certain abstraction.
A recurrent element during her entire career were her self-portraits. The older she got, the more isolated she became, resulting in having herself as only model. In the period 1939-1945, the last years before her death, she produced her most impressive series of portraits, in which she recorded her own physical deterioration with shocking honesty. Her features became increasingly hollow, until only a shadow of a skull remained. These uncompromising portrait series had a very penetrating character and have still a bit of a frightening evocation. In recent years Schjerfbeck’s paintings and drawings are included more frequently in exhibitions across Europe giving a larger public the chance to discover the work of this Finnish artist.