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Helene schjerfbeck (1862‑1946)

The year is 1917 and Schjerfbeck had during the last fifteen years isolated herself in the countryside in Hyvinge, where her style had developed significantly. She now worked in a sketch-like manner, with the bare canvases interacting with the compositions, often letting the now strong and expressive colour fields end a bit from the frame. This change of style is evident in her series of portraits of the young Chinese executed in 1917. Schjerfbeck had implemented the red colour in her works before, notably in ”De röda äpplena” from 1915, but it is perhaps more strikingly applied than ever before in the present watercolour titled “Kinesiskt barn”, with the young child’s intensely red lips standing out from the otherwise thoughtfully stripped palette.

Rarely told is the story about the roughly 200,000 Chinese who worked within the Russian Empire in the years prior to and during the First World War. Finland was and had been part of Russia since 1809 until the October Revolution changed the empire’s geopolitical situation, and the Finnish government subsequently declared independence on 6 December 1917. Russian recruitment of the Chinese began after the serious losses of manpower incurred by Russia since the start of the war. Most recruiting was done in the three provinces of northeast China. Thus, the presence of Chinese immigrants in Finland at the time was fairly widespread due to this demand in labour, and Helene Schjerfbeck encounters a young Chinese child in 1917 whom she portrays in several versions.

As in many of Schjerfbeck’s portraits, the model is portrayed in a serene state, with the head slightly tilted. The significance of live models in Schjerfbeck’s oeuvre cannot be overstated, many of which have been identified, though the identity of the young child portrayed in 1917 have never been revealed. “Kinesiskt barn” was executed during an eventful period in the artist’s career, with her first solo-exhibition opening on the 12th of September 1917, taking place in Stenmans konstsalong in Helsinki. The exhibition, which featured at least one of the portraits of the young Chinese, was a great success at once and many of the paintings that were offered sold the first day.

A few years later Schjerfbeck was granted The Order of the White Rose of Finland. After her mother’s death in 1923, Schjerfbeck settled in the coastal town of Ekenäs. There she continued her work, though with some hardship due to the lack of models in the countryside. Schjerfbeck also struggled with periods of anxiety, being one of the reasons she seeked solitude away from the city. In the summer of 1932 she is visited by fellow artists Venny Soldan-Brofeldt  and  Maggie  Gripenberg.  Her  friend’s  presence  reignites  Schjerfbeck’s inspiration, and among the works she executes this year is the present charcoal and watercolor “Lärarinnan” – portrait of a woman. The focus on faces and elongated necks stems from Schjerfbeck’s lifelong fascination with the works of El Greco, Greek painter of the Spanish Renaissance. Swift yet steady strokes of charcoal forms the outlines of the woman’s face. An oil on canvas version of “Lärarinnan” was subsequently executed in 1933.

Both works by Helene Schjerfbeck included in the sale has been part of the collection of Gösta Stenman (1888‑1947), inventory numbers 5107 and 3256 respectively, both exhibited at his Stockholm gallery in the 1950’s.

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Julia Unge Sörling


Klassisk och äldre konst
Tel: 0701-08 14 08

Fredrik Fellbom


Skulptur och grafik
Tel: 0707-51 81 31

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