The Face of a Stranger

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Last exhibited in London almost 130 years ago, the Royal Academy of Arts have reintroduced Helene Schjerfbeck to UK audiences. Virtually a stranger in Britain, Schjerfbeck is a Finnish national icon known for her abstract self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes. The exhibition, due to end next week (27th October 2019), highlights the evolution of Schjerfbeck’s art, demonstrating her fascination with superficial appearance and what lies beneath.

Helena Sofia Schjerfbeck was born in Helsinki on 10th July 1862, the third child of office manager Svante Schjerfbeck and Olga Johanna (née Printz). At the time, Finland was an autonomous Grand-Duchy within the Russian Empire and the Schjerfbeck children were brought up speaking Swedish. By the end of her life, Helene Schjerfbeck could speak Swedish, French, English and German but not, ironically, Finnish.

When Schjerfbeck was four years old, she broke her hip after falling down some stairs. As a result, she would always walk with a limp and was unable to attend school. To cheer her up, her father gave his daughter drawing materials to keep her occupied during hours of immobility. Little did anyone know that this act would have such an impact on her destiny.

By the age of 11, Schjerfbeck was producing remarkable drawings for someone so young. After the drawings had been shown to the Finnish genre painter Adolf von Becker (1831-1901), Schjerfbeck was enrolled as the youngest ever member of the Finnish Art Society in Helsinki. Becker, who was a tutor at the school, paid for her tuition.

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Portrait of Helena Westermarck, 1884

The school taught its students to draw by copying other artworks and sketching sculptures or, occasionally, life models. Copying famous artists was something that would play a huge role in Schjerfbeck’s future. During her four years of study, Schjerfbeck won many awards and began to spell her name as Helene to distinguish herself from her newfound friend and future artist and writer, Helena Westermarck (1857-1938). The selection of Schjerfbeck’s early work at the exhibition includes a portrait of Helena.

Sadly, Schjerfbeck’s father died after a bout of tuberculosis in 1876 and never saw his daughter graduate from the Finnish Art Society, which she achieved the following year. Had Becker not been paying for Schjerbeck’s education, the working-class family would not have been able to afford the fees. Schjerfbeck’s mother began taking in boarders to get by.

After graduation, Schjerfbeck began studying at Westermarck, von Becker’s private academy in Helsinki. Again, her tuition was paid for, allowing her to study for two years under von Becker’s guidance. During this time she learnt how to work with oils and paint from memory. She continued to win many prizes and had some of her work displayed in the Finnish Art Society’s annual exhibition in 1880.

Schjerfbeck continued winning prizes after graduating, including a prize awarded by the Senate of Finland for her painting Wounded Soldier in the Snow. With the prize money, she was able to travel abroad to continue her studies. Along with Helena Westermarck, Schjerfbeck moved to Paris to study at Mme Trélat de Vigny’s studio. The following year, they both enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, where they studied for a short time before returning to Finland.

In 1883, the Imperial Senate presented Schjerfbeck with a scholarship that allowed her to return to the French capital and exhibit at the Salon for the first time. She also spent time in the emerging artist’s colony Pont-Aven in Brittany. Whilst there, Schjerfbeck developed a new, expressive style that can be seen in her painting Clothes Drying and The Door. The latter is a small, modest painting showing light spilling from under a closed door. Produced while sitting in Tremalo Chapel, Pont-Aven, Schjerfbeck ignored the altars and sculptures that attracted other artists in favour of the unassuming door. The only evidence that she is in a church is the stone archway to the right of the door.
Allegedly, Schjerfbeck became engaged whilst in either Brittany or Paris, however, her unknown fiancé wrote to her breaking off the engagement. All correspondence between the pair was destroyed by her friends and Schjerfbeck returned to Finland in 1884.

Schjerfbeck did not remain home long before she was awarded another grant from the Finnish Art Society. In 1887, she returned to Paris but spent the summer in St Ives, Cornwall at the invitation of her friend Marianne Preindlesberger (1885-1927), who she had befriended during her studies. The summer soon became autumn, winter and then spring before Schjerfbeck returned to Paris. In 1889, she repeated the trip once more.

The atmosphere and quality of light in St Ives inspired many artworks. She rented a tower and attended art classes led by Preindlesberger’s husband Aidan Scott Stokes (1854-1935). Her paintings took on a plein-air style, which was well received and included landscapes and portraits, such as, View of St Ives and Woman with a Child. She also paid a small fee to set up her easel in a local bakery, where she painted the stone kitchen, capturing the warmth of the room and bread.

Between 1887 and 1890, Schjerfbeck exhibited several times in London at the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours in Picadilly. During this time, she painted The Convalescent, which won the bronze medal at the 1889 Paris World Fair. The painting was later purchased by the Finnish Art Society.

Schjerfbeck’s grant ran out at the end of the decade and she returned to Finland in 1890. Again, she did not remain in Finland for long before being commissioned by the Finnish Art Society to travel to St Petersburg to make copies of paintings in the Hermitage Museum. These included works by Frans Hals (1582-1666) and Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). After this, she travelled to Vienna to make more copies of paintings in the Kunsthistorische Museum, followed by Florence to do the same in the Uffizi Gallery.

When in Finland, Schjerfbeck worked as a drawing teacher at the Finnish Art Society. Whilst she was an excellent instructor, she felt it hindered her artistic flow. She felt cut off from fellow Finnish artists who were embracing new techniques and styles. She also found the demands of teaching physically taxing and fell ill in 1895.

Schjerfbeck recovered her health at a Norwegian sanatorium and quickly returned to work. Unfortunately, she had to take another year off in 1900 when she fell ill again. As a result, she decided to resign from her position at the Finnish Art Society and move in with her mother in the town of Hyvinkää.

Whilst taking care of her mother, Schjerfbeck continued to paint and exhibit her work. She used her mother as well as local women and children as her models then sent final pieces to be shown at the Turku Art Society, an association for professional visual artists. Many of her works during this period were influenced by artists she had seen on her travels. As well as masters from the past, she was also inspired by artists of her era, for instance, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).

During her visit to Vienna, Schjerfbeck encountered artworks by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), whose influence can be seen in her painting, Maria. Her choice of colour recalls the blue-green backgrounds of Holbein’s portraits of royalty. She also included the word “Maria” in a gold serif typeface, which again is similar to Holbein and his contemporaries.

Inspiration was also taken from the early Renaissance frescoes Schjerfbeck had seen in Italy. She produced her painting Fragment imagining it to be a section of a much larger scene. Using several layers of oil paint, Schjerfbeck scraped sections of the top layer to reveal the colours hidden beneath. In doing this, she produced what looked like a fragment of a deteriorating Renaissance fresco.

Caring for her mother meant Schjerfbeck did not get many opportunites to leave the town of Hyvinkää. Her growing fame, however, did not prevent her from receiving a number of visitors. In 1913, a young art dealer Gösta Stenman (1888-1947) met with her in person to purchase several of her paintings. He also encouraged her to exhibit more widely and eventually became her principal dealer.

Another visitor was the artist and writer Einar Reuter (1881-1968). Although much younger than her, Schjerfbeck hoped a romantic relationship could be sparked between the two, however, it was not to be. Nonetheless, Reuter became a good friend and featured in a handful of her paintings. In 1919, Reuter sat for his portrait, however, the year before, he had sat for her in the guise of a sailor. This is a demonstration of Schjerfbeck’s fascination with superficial and true appearances.

Despite being thirty miles north of Helsinki, the Finnish Art Society commissioned Schjerfbeck to paint a self-portrait. In 1914, no other female artist had been invited to do the same and she felt vindicated by this commission, having been estranged from the society for so long. She submitted the result, Self-Portrait, Black Background, in September 1915.

Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits are evidence of her changing style and technique. She produced her first self-portrait at the age of 22, which demonstrated the methods she had been taught whilst leaning slightly towards impressionism. By 1915, however, her style had completely altered. No longer did she delicately paint her facial features, preferring to use flat shapes and colour instead. Her face has barely any sense of depth and her body is angular and flat.

Towards the end of her life, Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits became gradually more abstract, less human, and more alien or death-like. Her mother had died in 1923 and her health was deteriorating rapidly twenty years later. The Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, sparking the Winter War and the fighting impacted heavily on her life. Evacuated several times to various sanatoriums, eventually ending up in Sweden, Schjerfbeck was anxious, lonely and unwell. With old age and her impending death on her mind, her self-portraits expressed her fears and depression rather than her true likeness.

Fortunately, life during the 1910s was generally good for Schjerfbeck. In 1917, she organised her first solo exhibition in Helsinki, bringing together 159 paintings. From this success, her first biography was published by Reuter under the alias H. Ahtela. Unfortuntely, it was only published in Finnish, therefore Schjerfbeck could not read it.

Whilst Schjerfbeck was celebrating her success, the Russian Revolution was in progress, which allowed Finland to declare independence. In order to establish a cultural identity, the new sovereign began to promote Finnish artists. In 1920, the state awarded Schjerfbeck the Order of the White Rose of Finland and a state pension. This marked her as one of the country’s best artists.

Shortly after her mother’s death, Schjerfbeck was taken seriously ill, moved to the town of Tammisaari and hired home help. Despite her health, she enjoyed living in the town, continuing to paint local women and children. She also painted relatives who came to visit, for instance, her nephew Måns Schjerfbeck (1897-1973). Once again, Schjerfbeck explored the fine line between superficial and real, painting a portrait of Måns in an imaginary role of The Driver. She also based paintings on her favourite works, such as El Greco’s (1541-1614) profile of the Madonna.

There was no chance of Schjerfbeck being lonely in Tammisaari; she was so famous that on her 70th birthday she had to hide to avoid all the well-wishers. None of this prevented her artistic success and she continued to receive an annual salary from her principal dealer Stenman. Her fame was also spreading on the continent with solo exhibitions in Sweden, Germany and France. The Royal Swedish Academy of Fine arts invited her to enrol as a foreign member in 1942, along with Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

As well as portraits, Schjerfbeck produced many still-life paintings, taking inspiration from Cézanne. Many of these are abstract and focus intently on the relationship between space, tone and colour. Whilst she had produced still-lifes in the past, they became a predominant feature of her final years. Sent from place to place to avoid the war, Schjerfbeck painted the things around her, particularly fruit. Her final painting was Three Pears on a Plate, which is full of the sense of death and decay, similar to her self-portraits.

On 23rd January 1946, while staying at the Grand Hotel Saltsjöbaden in Sweden, Helene Schjerfbeck passed away at the age of 83, her easel by her bedside. Her ashes were buried alongside those of her parents in Helsinki and, later in the year, an exhibition toured Sweden and Finland in her memory. Ten years later, Schjerfbeck was posthumously selected to represent Finland at the 1956 Venice Biennale. To date, she remains Finland’s best known and most admired artist.

“Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.”
– Helene Schjerfbeck

If Helene Schjerfbeck is Finland’s greatest artist, why is she not better known in the UK? Unlike on the continent, Schjerfbeck did not exhibit in the UK as often and, being a woman, tended to be overlooked. A planned exhibition in the USA was prevented by the war, diminishing her chances of becoming well-known on another continent.

Another reason for her lack of popularity is her work is not easy to categorise. Whilst her earlier work falls into the impressionist bracket, her mature work is a blend of cubism, post-impressionism and abstract expressionism. As a result, she gets omitted from exhibitions about individual art movements.

With the assistance of the Royal Academy, Helene Schjerfbeck has returned to the UK where a new generation has learnt her name and admired her work. Seventy-three years after her death, Schjerfbeck finally gets the chance to earn fame in other countries. But how long will it be before the whole world recognises her face?

The Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition can be viewed at the Royal Academy of Arts until 27th October 2019. Tickets are £14 and concessions are available. Under 16s are free when accompanied by a fee-paying adult.

King and Collector

For the first time since the 17th century, a fraction of Charles I’s (1600-49) impressive collection of treasures is reunited in a phenomenal exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. It is thought that the Stuart king once amassed over 1500 paintings, which after his execution in 1649, were sold off and scattered across Europe. Thanks to his son and heir, Charles II, who incidentally has an exhibition of his own at the Queen’s Gallery, many of these were retrieved and reclaimed by the royal family. Charles I: King and Collector contain over 100 works including classical sculpture, Baroque paintings, miniatures and tapestries.

The fate of Charles I is largely known, however, his personal life and character often get overlooked. Charles was the second son and youngest surviving child of James VI of Scotland (later James I) and was not destined to become king. Unfortunately, his older brother Henry, the Prince of Wales died in 1612, making Charles heir apparent. Thirteen years later, Charles succeeded his father as king and his volatile reign began. As the king of Great Britain, Charles I angered many people by dissolving Parliament and taking complete control of the country. By 1642, the first of two civil wars had broken out between the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), and the Royalists. Seven years later, Charles was dead, having been beheaded in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace.

The Royal Academy puts Charles I’s execution to one side and concentrates on the man himself and his huge collection of artworks. At the time, Charles owned the best art collection in Europe and the pieces that remain in the Royal Collection are his greatest legacy. The exhibition begins by introducing a few of the painters that were working at the time of Charles’ reign. These include Anthony van Dyck ,(1599-1641), Peter Paul Rubens (1571-1640), and Daniel Mytens (1590 – 1647), whose self-portraits can be seen in the first gallery.

Two portraits by Van Dyck introduce visitors to the king and his queen, Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), the daughter of Henri IV of France. The painting of King Charles is unusual in that it contains three portraits of the king, each facing a different direction: profile, face on, and half-profile. This painting was not made for display but rather to aid the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to produce a bust of the British king. Unfortunately, this sculpture was later lost in a fire. This painting, however, reveals a lot about the way Charles wished to be seen. It is clear from his clothing that he is a man of taste, yet his dreamy expression suggests an air of sensitivity.

Charles’ passion for art began before he became king and was greatly impacted by his travels to Madrid in 1623. The initial purpose of visiting Spain was to explore the possibility of marrying the Infanta Maria Anna, however, it quickly became apparent that this was never going to happen. Instead, Charles returned to England with a number of paintings and artworks. Many of these appear in this exhibition, including several he acquired from the continent later in life, in particular, the second century AD statue of the Greek goddess, Aphrodite.

Aphrodite or The Crouching Venus is one of several Roman marble copies of the lost Hellenistic sculpture. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and beauty who is depicted as a nude in a crouching pose with her hair over her left shoulder.

This was one of the most beautiful antiquities sourced in Mantua for the king. After Charles’ execution, the painter Peter Lely (1618-80) acquired the statue, however, returned it after the restoration of the monarchy. The Crouching Venus can usually be found at the British Museum where it has been on loan since 1963.

Another important artwork with Spanish connections is a large-scale oil painting by Rubens that was gifted to the king by the artist. Peace and War (c1630) was Ruben’s subliminal method of illustrating his hopes for peace between England and Spain. In the background, the Roman goddess Minerva can be seen pushing Mars, the god of war, whilst in the foreground, Pax, the goddess of Peace sits amidst a horn of plenty.

“The King prefers old paintings.” Letter from England to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, 11th July 1635

Many paintings in Charles’ collection were painted long before he was born. A considerable amount of artwork on display comes from the Renaissance era, both Northern and Italian. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), who had been in service to Henry VIII (1491-1547) was a particular favourite. It is recorded that Charles I owned 44 works by Holbein, who predominantly painted portraits. The example in this exhibition, however, is a biblical scene taken from John 20:17. Noli me tangere (c1528) shows the risen Christ outside his tomb forbidding Mary Magdalene to touch him.

Nearby, another Biblical painting from the same era depicts Adam and Eve standing naked in the Garden of Eden after taking their forbidden bites from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This painting by Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was sent by the Dutch states in an attempt to curry favour with the king. A number of paintings from Northern Europe were given to Charles as gifts, therefore, it cannot be certain whether he enjoyed these types of works. On the other hand, the sheer number of paintings from the Italian Renaissance, which fills two galleries of the exhibition, imply that the king had a passion for older works.

Biblical scenes were popular amongst Renaissance painters, therefore, it is unsurprising to find several more religious artworks in Charles’ collection. One of particular note is The Supper at Emmaus (c1534) by the Italian painter Titian (1488-1576). Charles acquired this painting in the 1620s shortly before becoming king. It illustrates part of the New Testament recorded in Luke 24:30-31 where Jesus is breaking bread with two disciples after his resurrection. This, however, is not the reason for its significance, it is the techniques of the artist rather than the subject that matters most in this exhibition.

As those who choose to pay for an audio guide will discover, works by Titian influenced many later artists, including Van Dyck who became the Principalle Paynter in Ordenarie to their Majesties in 1632. In the background of Titian’s painting is a large column, which can be seen over Jesus’ shoulder. The positioning of this column is deliberate because it draws the eye to the principal character in the painting, thus denoting his importance. Van Dyck uses this artistic trick in a few of his portraits of Charles I and the royal family. Similarly, William Dobson (1611-46) does the same in a portrait of Charles II, indicating his importance, even at the young age of twelve.

As the king’s painter, Van Dyck was responsible for many of the portraits of members of the royal family. Born in the Flemish city Antwerp, Anthony van Dyck was a teen prodigy who found his feet as an assistant to Peter Paul Rubens. It was during a stay in Italy where Van Dyck encountered paintings by Titian and filled many sketchbooks with drawings based on these. One of these books is displayed in the final gallery of the exhibition.

Van Dyck quickly built up a reputation as a portraitist and was sought out by many aristocrats throughout Europe. King Charles I was one of his many admirers and enticed Van Dyck to come to England with promises of a knighthood, a bountiful salary and a studio in Blackfriars, London. Although he preferred to be in mainland Europe, Van Dyck impressed the British nobility with his impressive paintings.

For the first and possibly only time, the four largest and most important paintings Van Dyck produced of Charles I are on display at the centre of the exhibition. The curators at the Royal Academy have done an excellent job at positioning these tall canvases so that if visitors stand in the centre of the Central Hall, they can turn 360 degrees and take in all four paintings. Three of these focus on the king and his passion for the hunting field, however, the other is a family portrait, featuring his wife and two eldest children.

The first piece Van Dyck was commissioned to produce for the king was the family portrait, which became known as The Great Peece (1632). Charles and Henrietta Maria are both seated on throne-like chairs whilst their pet dogs play on the floor at their feet. The queen holds the baby Mary and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, clings to his father’s leg. This may appear a casual, informal portrait depicting the foursome as a family rather than rulers of the country, however, there are many subliminal signs that suggest the opposite.

To the king’s right-hand side sits the royal crown atop a red velvet cloth, which indicates Charles’ status. Behind him, in the distance, are the buildings of Westminster, communicating the king’s role in politics. Both of these elements point to Charles’ importance, however, Van Dyck’s use of a column inspired by Titian, is almost an arrow pointing to the most significant person in the painting.

The remaining three paintings show Charles I outside of his family circle. In two of these, Charles is mounted on a horse: Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine (1633) and Charles I on Horseback (1637-8). Equestrian paintings were an emblem of power and Charles wished to appear to the public as a strong ruler. The horses are large and muscular with manes that are not dissimilar to their rider’s hair. Van Dyck uses the strength of these animals to stress the powerful position of the king.

The final large painting, Le Roi à la Chasse or Charles I in the Hunting Field (1636) reflects more of the king’s personality than his position of power. Rather than sitting aside his horse, Charles stands at its head striking a nonchalant pose with a traditional English landscape behind him. Although Charles may not be wearing the royal armour as in the previous two paintings, he is still dressed as befits his status, complete with broad-brimmed hat, an appearance that would become a memorable look for the king.

It is clear from this exhibition that Charles I had an eye for artwork, however, he was not the only one. Henrietta Maria sought out and commissioned a fair share of the collection, particularly the Italian Baroque paintings, which her husband appeared not to be as fascinated with. Like her husband, Henrietta Maria was drawn to religious scenes as well as the occasional Greek or Roman myth. Many of the paintings owned by the queen were commissioned for particular rooms in her apartments, including the Queen’s House in Greenwich.

The Queen’s House was originally going to be a gift for James I’s wife, however, she died before its completion. Henrietta Maria, who received the house as a present from Charles I, made the building’s decoration her personal project. One painter she particularly admired was Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) who had once worked for her mother in Paris. Henrietta Maria persuaded the Italian painter to come to England where he decorated one of the ceilings at the house in Greenwich. He also completed canvases for the queen, including Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1630-2), which only returned to the Queen’s House last year.

Gentileschi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife is based on a scene from the Book of Genesis (39:7-12) when the Pharaoh’s wife attempts to entice Joseph into bed, who at this time is the captain of Potiphar’s guard. Although Joseph refuses the woman, she uses his cloak, which in the painting she is holding on to whilst Joseph makes his escape, to claim that he had seduced her. The rich colours, smooth skin tone, an abundance of fabric, and the use of chiaroscuro (dramatic lighting, see Caravaggio) that Gentileschi includes in the painting are an indication of Henrietta Maria’s tastes.

Visitors who have also been to the Queen’s House may also recognise the final painting in the exhibition: Landscape with St George and the Dragon (1630-5) by Peter Paul Rubens. This was not one of Henrietta Maria’s acquisitions but a gift to the king from the artist. It is believed that Rubens produced this landscape in honour of England after his year as an English diplomat. It is a depiction of the famous English folktale where Saint George defeats the bloodthirsty dragon, however, in the background can be seen buildings alongside the River Thames. It is also suggested that Saint George has been deliberately painted to resemble King Charles I.

The paintings mentioned above are only a handful of the marvellous artworks that Charles I had in his reputable collection. Within this exhibition are the nine paintings that make up The Triumph of Caesar (1484-92) by the 15th-century artist Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), and four tapestries showing the Acts of the Apostles. There is also a room devoted to miniatures and small items that were part of the Whitehall Cabinet. These would not have been on public view, therefore, give an insight into Charles’ life behind doors. One item worth noting is the tiny bronze statue of Charles I on horseback by Hubert Le Sueur (1580 – 1658); this is a model of the version erected in Trafalgar Square.

As reported in The Times, the RA exhibition Charles I: King and Collector is “a landmark exhibition. You will not see its likes again. Don’t miss your chance.” This is a very accurate opinion, it is indeed a landmark exhibition and these paintings will never be all in the same place again. Most importantly, the paintings on show are some of the best to have been produced prior to and during the early 1600s. It may be expensive to enter, but after two hours of walking through the galleries, you will agree that it is worth the price.

Charles I: King and Collector is organised in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and remains on show until 15th April 2018. Prices are £18 although concessions are available.