Helene Schjerfbeck – one of the most important and renowned artists of the entire Nordic region – was famously reticent in her lifetime, paying little interest to her public profile. Encouraged by her supporters to engage in actively promoting and exhibiting her work in her native Finland, Schjerfbeck went on to exhibit more widely in Europe. Some 60 years following her death, her international breakthrough was made in 2007 with her first major retrospective exhibition outside the Nordic countries.
Schjerfbeck’s profile will gather further momentum this winter when three works by the artist will be offered for sale by Sotheby’s in London on 16 December 2015 in the context of the company’s auction of 19th Century European Paintings. Never previously offered at auction, Girl with Blond Hair, The Fencer, and Flaxen-Haired Boy come to the market from a Private Collection. All three works will be on view to the public in Helsinki on 17 November at Galerie Donner (Merikatu 1).
Claude Piening, Head of Department, 19th Century European Paintings, Sotheby’s London, said: “Painted over a period of almost fifty years, these three pictures provide an amazing insight into Schjerfbeck’s creative and artistic development. Girl with Blond Hair epitomizes Schjerfbeck’s pared down yet expressive aesthetic, and is doubly fascinating for being double-sided, revealing, on the reverse, a study for one of her most iconic paintings, The Tapestry.”
Anna-Maija Bernard, Sotheby’s Finland, said: “We are extremely excited and honored to be offering three key works by the artist, which are completely fresh to the market. Masterpieces by Schjerfbeck such as Girl with Blond Hair rarely come to auction, and the appearance of these three works for sale in London marks an important moment for Finnish art on the international stage.”
Leading the group is Girl with Blond Hair, estimated at £500,000-700,000 (€680,000-950,000). Painted in 1916, the oil on canvas is a prime example of Schjerfbeck’s radical modernist style, synthesizing the influence of Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec. The sweeping, confident brushwork and sublime, pure colour combine to produce one of Schjerfbeck’s most expressive works. The sitter for the work was Impi Tamlander, the artist’s neighbour in Hyvinkää, who, together with her elder sister Jenny, ran errands for Schjerfbeck and helped her around the house. Girl with Blond Hair shows Impi in the same pose as in The Family Heirloom of 1915-16 (Ateneum, Helsinki), the double portrait of her and Jenny.
Sotheby’s specialists Claude Piening and Richard Lowkes made an exciting discovery when inspecting the verso of the painting. They found that Schjerfbeck originally used the other side of the canvas for a study of the man in her seminal work The Tapestry, of 1914-16 (private collection). Abandoning the composition by painting roughly over the top in white and red pigments, it is likely Schjerfbeck initially meant simply to reuse the surface by painting over it before deciding to turn over the canvas to begin afresh on Girl with Blond Hair.
After sojourns in Paris, Pont-Aven, and St Ives in the 1880s, followed by a decade of teaching in Helsinki punctuated by further European travels, Schjerfbeck definitively resigned from her teaching commitments in 1902. Dogged by ill-health and seeking respite from the pressures of urban life, in June of that year the artist and her mother moved north from Helsinki to Hyvinkää, where they would remain in relative isolation over the next fifteen years. With her mother and local people as models, Schjerfbeck’s rapidly evolved the modernist, pared-down artistic technique which she explored throughout the second half of her life.
Schjerfbeck was encouraged by her patrons, art dealer Gösta Stenman and Einar Reuter to exhibit at the major Finnish Art exhibition organised by Sven Strindberg at Liljevalchs konsthall in Stockholm in 1916. Among the ten paintings by Schjerfbeck exhibited at Liljevalchs was Girl with Blond Hair, which also had the distinction of being the only one of her paintings for sale. The painting was bought at the exhibition by Uno Donner, a Finnish engineer living in Stockholm, whose brother Ossian had founded the United Woollen Mills factory in Hyvinkää. The first print-run of Reuter’s self-funded monograph on Schjerfbeck, written under the pseudonym H. Ahtela, followed in 1917, the same year that Stenman organised the first solo exhibition of her art with 159 works at his Helsinki gallery, leading to great success both in critical reception and sales.
Satisfied that Girl with Blond Hair had gone to a good home, and with her profile boosted by the 1916 exhibitions of her work at the Liljevalchs and at the Turku Art Society, as well as by the 1917 monograph, Schjerfbeck might have felt the time was right to return to urban life, but her reaction was quite the opposite: ‘All my friends tell me: Now you can move to Helsinki, heaven preserve me, I can’t do that’.
Ranking among Schjerfbeck’s most striking male portraits, The Fencer, produced in 1924 in Hyvinkää, in watercolour, gouache and charcoal on paper, and estimated at £50,000-70,000 (€68,000-95,000), is a portrait of a Mr. Huolman from Lake Saimaa in the south-east of Finland. The work of El Greco inspired Schjerfbeck like no other single artist throughout her career. After the ‘rediscovery’ of El Greco in the previous century, the first decades of the twentieth century saw a period of critical re-evaluation of the Cretan artist’s work, at exactly the same moment that Schjerfbeck was developing her idiosyncratic form of modernism. Finding artistic affinity in the psychological intensity and drama of his work, and spurred-on by her knowledge that Cézanne had been a fellow admirer, in the 1920s Schjerfbeck was repeatedly drawn to models which she considered ‘Greco-esque’.
Flaxen-Haired Boy is a charming portrait painted by Schjerfbeck as early as 1878, when she was just sixteen years old. Estimated at £120,000-180,000 (€165,000-250,000), it exemplifies her precocious talent. Schjerfbeck cherished children above any other subject and delighted in depictions of childhood naturalness, innocence and unselfconsciousness, which often enabled her to represent many of her own emotions. Perhaps most strikingly of all, the pink of the unidentified boy’s shirt would reappear in a number of Schjerfbeck’s late works, suggesting she recognised personal significance in the colour at a very early stage.