She prefers not to give us her full face, favoring a three-quarter view. The jawline is long and elegant, the chin often up, her eyes large, round, and wary. She likes to keep a shoulder between herself and her audience. Helene Schjerfbeck, who lived from 1862 to 1946, was a national treasure in her native Finland, and a visionary artist. She produced more than 1,000 paintings in her lifetime—portraits, landscapes, still lifes—but it’s the self-portraits that tell her story most eloquently.
Schjerfbeck began drawing at age four, when she was bedridden with a broken hip and her father gave her pencils with which to occupy her time. The child proved to be precocious, and it cannot be said that being female held her back: Schjerfbeck’s teenage study was supported by many scholarships, one of them bringing her to Paris in 1881. While her painting of trees in Brittany, Shadow on the Wall, done when she was 21, shows ghostly browns and greens already moving toward modernism, the self-portraits of her 20s are still traditional, if guarded and starkly all-seeing.
Pushing through the decades, however, the variations she plays on the theme of her own face—her temperament, really—become astonishing. As the critic Kate Kellaway recently wrote, “They put her in the company of Goya, Rembrandt, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud.” The curving line of that beautiful jaw grows finer, then thicker, then slashes upward, and in the last portraits of 1945 is hauntingly jagged, the Cubist corner of a death mask. —Laura Jacobs