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Art and Images in Psychiatry
March 2013

Helene Schjerfbeck's Self-portrait With Red Spot

Author Affiliations


JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(3):251-252. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.830

But the exhaustion of old age is something completely different—liberating, too, because you can let things go their own way, and are left with nothing but the sensitivity of the brush.—Helene Schjerfbeck (letter to Einar Reuter, November 28, 1926).1

Last year was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Nordic artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946).2 A child prodigy, she entered the Finnish Art Academy in Helsinki at 11 years of age as a special student. At 18 years of age, after graduation, she went to Paris on an art scholarship and remained mainly in Europe for the next 10 years where she studied with leading artists and copied old masters at the Louvre Museum. It was a propitious time filled with innovation, and it allowed her to absorb impressionism and modernism, the art movements of the 1880s. Schjerfbeck, like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, completed many self-portraits throughout her lifetime, especially in her later years. Perhaps the earliest of these is her “hidden self-portrait,” The Convalescent.1,3 Although the model is a child, the theme of convalescence is vicarious and poignantly points back to the isolation of her childhood. Following a hip fracture at the age of 4 years that resulted in a lifelong handicap, Schjerfbeck was homeschooled until her talent was recognized and she entered art school, freeing herself from confinement at home.

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