The human being, creature of eyes, needs the image. Leonardo da Vinci

Helene Schjerfbeck: Self-Portrait Black Background

ArtWay Visual Meditation September 1, 2019

Helene Schjerfbeck: Self-Portrait with Black Background

by Anikó Ouweneel

I would really like to know what your first thoughts were when you saw this self-portrait. What does this picture communicate and why? What would it be like to encounter this person in real life? Theoretical questions, of course, yet interesting to ponder them for a moment before you learn a little more about the life and circumstances of the maker.

Ever since I saw Helene Schjerfbeck’s (1862-1946) oeuvre exhibition in Helsinki at the end of the 1980’s, I have carried several images created by her in my heart. I am intrigued by the story of this celebrated Finnish painter who only recently has gained international recognition.

Being an unmarried female professional painter in the last quarter of the 19th century was a challenge in itself. Especially if you did not stick to the sweet and conventional still lifes women were expected to excel in (preferably as a hobby). This was the time when Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was played at the Finnish Theatre (1880) and major discussions on sexism were the topic of the day. Although the inequality of the sexes in the period would suggest otherwise, in the first five years of the existence of the Finnish Arts Society’s Prize only one male was awarded. The reason for that may have been that painting was not a great source of income. Selling artworks, teaching and copying masterpieces for museums were the only options to earn one’s living.

Helene was a talented little girl. After her encouraging father died when she was 13, her teacher helped her find grants to support her in her education. As a teenager she painted Wounded Soldier in the Snow (1880), a breakthrough then as women were not supposed to depict war. With the help of the turmoil around this painting she was given a travel grant to Paris in 1881. From then on several great study trips and grants followed.

Helene was greatly inspired in Paris, Florence and Cornwall. Everyday life became the focus of her study. She often did things differently than the mainstream. Her Boy Feeding his Little Sister was deemed by some as ‘not worthy’ to the lofty purpose of art. Her painting was considered not pretty enough. It was the time of the discussion about ‘good’ realism (often showing health and beauty) and ‘bad’ naturalism and many art critics loathed the modernists, who painted everyday scenes in new ways: with close ups, fragmentation or incompleteness.

In 1888 Helene painted The Convalescent, one of the treasures of the National Gallery in Helsinki today. It depicts a fragile (and very cute) sick child. She is holding a spring twig, which tells us that she is getting better. In this scene Helene (who never became a mother) captured something of the parent’s relief when a child begins to recover after a threatening illness. An image of hope, for sure, and atypical for modern painting.

Her unusual pioneering talent showed in landscapes, simple interiors, even still lifes, but most of all in sensitive portraits. There is a serene solitude and tranquility in her painting Hiljaisuus (Silence) from 1907. The subjects of the portraits often look down or aside, introvertedly and discreetly.

Through her career she painted at least 36 self-portraits. I remember my astonishment as a young adult, when I saw a part of this collection for the first time. Being confronted by a powerful yet due to illness fading human being will touch any spectator. We are used to selfies now, but these images communicate so much more than just resemblance. Her strong identity clearly radiates through from early on. The Self-Portrait with Black Background (see above at the top) was commissioned by the Finnish Art Society in 1915. Helene was pleased to be the only female participant. She painted herself in a strong self-conscious pose on a black background with a red pot of brushes. Her name features in block letters across the canvas, old-master-style. It is a noble look, fragile and feminine (loose lock of hair) yet authoritative, knowing where she stands and what she is worth. Unnerving too.

The sequence of self-portraits below shows an intimate inquiry. She kept observing and painting herself while she was slowly dying of cancer. It also shows her unique development. She freely explored different mediums and ways of portrayal. Her will to investigate is shining through the soulful images.

During her last years her gaze turned slowly downward, her youthfulness beaten. Her body was turning into dust but her urge to create was not defeated. A few strong charcoal lines cover up her powerful character and indicate a death mask just a few days before she died. She captured her own passing away. It is resignation and mutiny at the same time. A beautiful and profound way to go. She keeps touching hundreds of thousands of spectators worldwide.


Helene Schjerfbeck: Mustataustainen omakuva (Self-portrait with Black Background), 1915, oil on canvas, 45.5 x 36 cm. Toipilas (The Convalescent), 1888. Hiljaisuus (Silence), 1907. Self-portraits: 1884, 1912, 1915, 1926, 1939, 1942, 1944, 1944, 1945.

Until 27 October 2019 there is an exhibition about Helene Schjerfbeck in the Royal Academy in London (England), see

Helene Schjerfbeck’s pensive, melancholic paintings offer an intimate insight into the life of an outsider. An artist of compassion and great intelligence, Schjerfbeck furthered Finnish painting more than any of her contemporaries, and perhaps it was her vantage point away from the main artistic centres that allowed her to forge such a distinct style and broad range of reference, from the Old Masters to the French Impressionists. Throughout the 1890s Schjerfbeck taught at the Finnish Art School; however, her health deteriorated and she resigned in 1902. With no financial support from her family, Schjerfbeck funded her travels through book illustrations and group exhibitions. The French Naturalists and Impressionists were to have a formative influence on her early work. Later in life, she developed a more pared-down, even abstract style, reworking many of her subjects of the 1880s in this new uncompromising way. Her skill as a portraitist lay in her ability to bring out the character of each sitter and the subtle intimacy that renders her work emotionally candid without straying into the sentimental. Schjerfbeck left Helsinki for the rural district of Hylvinkää in 1903, where she cared for her sick mother until her death in 1923. In 1944 she moved to the Saltsjöbaden spa hotel in Sweden during which time she produced many self-portraits and still lifes. (read more at

Anikó Ouweneel is a cultural historian and art curator living in the Netherlands. This year she curated Art Stations of the Cross Amsterdam together with Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker. For more see



1. ASSOCIATION OF SCHOLARS OF CHRISTIANITY IN THE HISTORY OF ART (ASCHA) INVITES PROPOSALS – Call for Papers: art editors Aaron Rosen and Jonathan Anderson are co-chairing a session at the 2020 CAA conference on Interactions between Judaism and Christianity in the History of Art. Wednesday, February 12, 2020: 4:00–5:30pm | Salon A-3, Hilton Chicago. In recent decades, a significant body of scholarship has begun to reexamine the interaction and interrelation between Judaism and Christianity in the history of art, from the third century to the twenty-first. For our 2020 CAA session, the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA) invites proposals for papers that further develop this scholarship by exploring moments of significant exchange between Jewish and Christian thought, practice, and/or material culture in the history of art. We welcome proposals from a variety of different approaches and foci, including instances of artists working with Jewish themes or concepts in Christian contexts or using Christian imagery; artists working with Christian themes or concepts in Jewish contexts or using Jewish imagery; instances of collaborative partnerships; instances of generative borrowings and adaptations; or any other instances in which aspects of these traditions mutually influence, inform, challenge, and enrich each other. Proposals can focus on any time period or geographical region, and we encourage proposals focusing on underrepresented artists or underrepresented aspects of familiar artists’ work.

2. EXHIBITION IN TORONTO, CANADA – Until 15 September, Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen’s Park, Toronto: In the Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. An unprecedented collection of over sixty paintings –  including works from Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, and Jacob van Ruisdael  – provides insight into the 17th century Dutch and Flemish ways of life, whether through luxurious still life, humorous genre scenes, sumptuous portraits, or detailed landscapes, cityscapes, and architectural paintings. The 17th century Dutch Golden Age exhibited a new approach to art. Independence from Spanish Catholic monarchical rule and the establishment of a Dutch Protestant Republic spurred a boost in global trade, a scientific revolution, and a burgeoning middle class. This political and religious freedom paved the way for a newly democratic period in art history. Instead of the extravagant portrayals of royalty, history, and religious subjects seen elsewhere in Europe, Dutch artists often depicted ordinary people, everyday life, and scenes that appealed to middle-class citizens and fueled a competitive art market. 10 – 17.30 h.

3. CANTERBURY, ENGLAND: SEE THROUGH STORIES – 18 September, 18.30 h, Canterbury Cathedral Stained Glass Studio, Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury: See Through Stories: Windows on the World. The first in a series of six lectures: Professor Tod Linafelt (Georgetown University, USA): What Does it Mean to be Human?: Adam (and Eve) Inside and Outside the Garden.

4. VISUAL THEOLOGY’S CONFERENCE ENGLAND - 21 September – 22 September. St. Michael and All Angels Chapel, Marlborough College, Bath Road, Marlborough: Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites: Sacre Conversazioni. Visual Theology's second conference seeks to bring church leaders, academics, and artists together to explore the legacy of John Ruskin and his ideas about theology and the arts, in this his bicentenary year. Confirmed speakers include Professors George P. Landow and Colin Cruise, the Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam Bishop of Salisbury, as well as Professors Elizabeth Helsinger and Lucy Hartley. We will also see a reimagining of the Chapel's consecration with artist Mark Dean. Full programme and booking: 

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc. inside and outside your country, click here

ArtWay is a website with resources for congregations and individuals concerned about linking art and faith.


Other recent meditations:
- September 2019: Friedl Dicker-Brandeis: Art in Terezín
- September 2019: Piero della Francesca: The Duke and Duchess
- August 2019: Gao Zhen: Execution of Christ
- August 2019: Johannes Wickert: Beggars

For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists