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Helene Schjerfbeck (Finnish painter) 1862 - 1946

Helene Schjerfbeck is most widely known for her realist works and self-portraits, and less well known for her landscapes and still lifes. Throughout her long life, her work changed dramatically. 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. That summer Schjerfbeck spent time at a manor owned by her aunt on her mother’s side, Selma Printz, and Selma’s husband Thomas Adlercreutz. There she spent time drawing and painting her cousins. Schjerfbeck became particularly close to her cousin Selma Adlercreutz, who was her age. 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. She then went back to the Académie Colarossi briefly before returning to the Adlercreutz family manor. Schjerfbeck continued to move around frequently, painting and studying with various people. Schjerfbeck made money by continuing to put her paintings in the Art Society’s exhibitions, and she also did illustrations for books. 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. In the 1890s Schjerfbeck started teaching regularly at the Art Society drawing school. In 1901, she began to get very sick and was not able to teach; in 1902 she had to resign from her teaching position because her health did not seem to improve. Schjerfbeck moved to Hyvinkää, all while taking care of her mother who lived with her (the mother died in 1923). While living in Hyvinkää, she continued with her art and kept putting her art in exhibitions. "Schjerfbeck’s sole contact with the art world was through magazines sent by friends." (Womans’ Art Journal 14). Since she did not have art, Schjerfbeck took up hobbies like reading and embroidery. It is during this time that Schjerbeck is considered to have become a modern painter. She produced still lifes and landscapes, as well as portraits, such as that of her mother, local school girls and women workers, and also self-portraits. Comparisons have been made with artists such as James McNeill Whistler and Edvard Munch, but as of 1905, her paintings take on a characteristic that can be attributed to her alone; she continued experimenting with various techniques, e.g., different types of underpaintings. In 1913, Schjerfbeck was "rediscovered" by Gösta Stenman, and she was once again a success, with touring exhibitions and even a biography. But as the years passed, Schjerfbeck started to travel less and less. Every now and then, when a family matter arose, such as a death, she would travel back to her home city of Helsinki. She did spend most of 1920 in Ekenäs, but by 1921 she was back living in Hyvinkää. For about a year, Schjerfbeck moved to a farm in Tenala to get away from the Winter War, but went back to Ekenäs in the middle of 1940 (The Finnish National Gallery Ateneum). She then later moved into a nursing home, where she resided for less than a year before moving to the Luontola sanatorium. A couple of years later, in 1944, she moved into the Saltsjöbaden spa hotel in Sweden, where she lived until her death on January 23, 1946. 

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