Art historical references are a recurrent theme in artist Helene Schjerfbeck’s work. Early on in her career, she was sent by ‘Konstföreningen’ (what is now the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki) on assignments to St Petersburg and Vienna, among other places, in order to copy the great masters. The resulting drawings and paintings were later used in teaching as templates for students. It was in parallel to this that her own daring formal experiments emerged. These were initially put to one side, re-emerging much later when the artist, as well as the time, was more ready for them.
Her great interest in the old masters, particularly Renaissance painters such as Cimabue and Fra Angelico, as well as the slightly later El Greco, came, at this period of her artistic practice, to play an increasingly important part in her work.
The 1920s turned out to be Schjerfbeck’s most productive decade since her youth in the 1880s. Her production is extensive and encompasses reworkings of earlier subjects, experiments with form, as well as her desire to move away from the conventional. She would often return to the same subject several years later. Her method was time-consuming. She painted, then scraped off paint, in order to find the expression she wanted.