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Helene Schjerfbeck – Madonna d’après Greco

Sold for SEK 680.000 at Uppsala Auktionskammare’s Important Sale 6-9 december 2016

150. Helene Schjerfbeck (Finland 1862‑1946). Madonna, d’après Greco.  Signed with monogram HS. Mixed media, 33.5 x 27 cm.


SEK 400.000 – 600.000
€ 41.000 – 62.000

During Helene Schjerfbeck’s last winter 1945-1946, she was living at a hotel in Saltsjöbaden outside Stockholm. She faced some difficulties in moving, but could not resist painting and drawing everyday. Few people besides the Stenman family visited her, and they brought her art litterature. One of the masters within art that she dearly admired was El Greco. Through the many “good black and white reproductions” in books and magazines, she could use them as models. She always wanted to have a model to work from in her paintings.

She studied the crowd of figures in El Greco’s large paintings, such as in “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” (today in Toledo). She studied the composition and learned how he filled his canvas with figures and shadows, which Cézanne learned from El Grece too. Her first painting “d’après Greco” was created in 1928, “Ängelfragment” (Fragment of an angel). The three heads were painted as from a spiritual world. She found her personal setting in colours, colours that never corresponded with the model since she never saw them in colours. She had only once seen a painting by El Greco in real life, during the 1880’s in Paris, but she read a lot about him in the beginning of the 20th century and studied the reproductions. She was fascinated by his way of perceiving and depicting human beings. She fell in love with El Greco and his creativeness, a love that grew even stronger when she became older. She treated his characters as individual people, as silent models. They could never disturb her thoughts with their voices, which sometimes was the case with the real life models when they sat in front of her easel.

Most of Helene Schjerfbeck’s paintings that were inspired by El Greco were created during the 1940’s and even more once she had been evacuated to Sweden in 1944.  She sought constantly to unite the subject’s sense of space with the flat two-dimensional surface of the canvas or paper, and simultaneously obtain a volume. The image of “Min värdsliga Madonna” was created in 1944 after a reproduction of El Greco’s Virgin Mary in his “The Holy Family” from 1594-1604. That painting is in St. Anne Hospital in Toledo.

Schjerfbeck’s secular image of the Madonna painted in oil is in the National Gallery in Oslo. The same Virgin Mary after El Greco reappeared in Schjerfbeck’s oeuvre a few months later in 1945, but then only the head was painted. “Madonnahuvud” is the last in the series of paintings after motifs of El Greco. Unlike the painting in Oslo’s pink and green-yellow colours with black shadows over the sunken eyes of watercolors, the Madonna depicted in the painting in this sale received a greyblue cloth around her hair. The black portions of the lowered gaze are distinctly marked in both images. The blue main colour, which is the Virgin Mary’s embracing sheath color, symbolizes the sky. Schjerfbeck chose blue when she painted her last works after El Greco, which is also the colour of hope.

Lena Holger
author and art historian
October 2016

H.Ahtela, Helena Schjerfbeck, Helsingfors: Holger Schildt 1953. Cat. no 1002.
Helene Schjerfbeck. 150 years. Ed. by Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse, Helsinki: Ateneum Art Museum/ Finnish National Gallery 2012.