This summer, Sotheby's will offer nine works by Helene Schjerfbeck, one of Finland’s best-loved and most celebrated artists. Consigned to auction from a Swedish private collection, the group constitutes what is arguably the most important ensemble of late works by the artist still in private hands, and an unprecedented offering on the international market. Carrying a combined low estimate in the region of £3 million, they will be presented as part of Sotheby's sale of European & British Art, Part I, in London on 13 July 2022. Prior to that, the works will go on view to the public in Helsinki at the Gallery Lemmetti on 19 May from 11am to 5pm.*
Always well-known in Finland and Sweden, and sometimes described as “Finland’s Munch”, Schjerfbeck began to be rediscovered by an international audience in 1992, with a retrospective exhibition in the US, an interest that has since extended to Asia, with the first staging of her work in the region held in 2015 at the University Art Museum in Tokyo. The appearance on the market of such an exceptional group comes at a time when critical interest in Schjerfbeck is at an all-time high, thanks to an array of international exhibitions from Paris and Hamburg, to Stockholm and, most recently, London.
The Convalescent, watercolour on paper, 1938, est. £300,000-500,000. Courtesy Sotheby's.
Schjerfbeck, who started out painting in a naturalistic style, sought to voice her own individuality as an artist. Produced between 1923 and 1945, the works chart a remarkable chronicle of Schjerfbeck's output over the final decades of her life, both aesthetically and psychologically. All of them stand out for their expressiveness and place them at the very forefront of Finnish but also European modernism.
In these stylistically pared-down, abstracted compositions, Schjerfbeck derives expression from within her sitters and herself. Her models were family, friends and acquaintances – people in her milieu – and never once did she paint a commissioned portrait. The Schjerfbeck exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 2019 demonstrated the artist’s life-long self-examination to powerful effect, with an entire room dedicated to her self-portraits that culminated in a series of moving late works in which she draws attention to the aging process and her own mortality. The Observer’s art critic Laura Cumming described the effect as “one the greatest time-lapse sequences in European art”. Schjerfbeck’s enquiry into her own humanity places her in esteemed company, alongside Rembrandt, Goya, Freud and Bacon.