Helene Schjerfbeck's Self-portrait With Red Spot | Humanities | JAMA Psychiatry | JAMA Network
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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.

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946), Finnish. Self-portrait With Red Spot, 1944. Oil on canvas, 45 × 37 cm. Stenman Collection. Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland. Copyright permission: Carl Appelberg.

Schjerfbeck's self-portraits appear in 3 phases. In the first phase, before the age of 50, the portraits are conventional realistic images. In the second phase, from the age of 50 until her old age, she produced stylized self-images on canvas. Her third phase, particularly in the last 2 years of her life, produced uncompromising self-portraits of old age. Unlike Rembrandt, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, or Frida Kahlo, Schjerfbeck focused only on her head and upper body in her portraits. She did not depict herself in particular roles or costumes as did Rembrandt,4 and she rarely painted herself as an artist. Nor did she focus on her personal suffering; she simply presented herself as she was at particular moments in time. One of her best-known self-portraits, Self-portrait With Black Background, completed at the behest of the Finish Arts Society, is illustrative of her second phase. The Society commissioned 9 prominent artists to provide self-portraits for its boardroom. Schjerfbeck was the only woman among them. Because this portrait of her is an invited, formal portrait as an artist, unlike her other self-portraits, she includes a red pot with paint brushes. She paints herself (Figure) in clear white against a black background. In this painting, 4 layers of paint are applied; some layers are thick, whereas others are scraped away or additionally whitened. At the top of the painting, her name appears faded, with indistinct silver lettering “like the [writing on] a gravestone,”1(p69) she later wrote.

Figure.Self-portrait With Black Background, 1915. Oil on canvas, 45.5 × 36 cm. Hallonblad Collection. Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland. Copyright permission: Carl Appelberg.

It is proposed that past conflicts with the Finish Art Society where she taught drawing for a number of years and the Society's earlier indifference to her work account for an element of seeming protest or accusation in this self-presentation.1 Her eyes seem calm, but the red patches on her cheeks and ears suggest a sense of inner agitation perhaps linked to her feelings about past encounters with the Society.5 Yet, overall, her face conveys a sense of proud determination. Schjerfbeck produces this effect by her use of color and in the definition of particular areas of the portrait, especially the pink around the eyes, the brown hair, and the gray-green of the brooch. It is a dignified image of a mature artist.

Schjerfbeck's style changed in her final self-portraits, which were completed when she was in her 80s. In these final self-portraits, Schjerfbeck piteously scrutinizes her aging face. Earlier, she had written to a relative that artists who prettify themselves in self-portraits are boring. There is no prettifying in these final self-portraits, in which the proximity of death becomes increasing apparent. For example, in Self-portrait With Red Spot (cover), she shows herself as ghostly, frozen, and even lifeless. The contours of her head dissolve beneath the brownish paint that surrounds it. In particular, the right side of her face blends into shadow, producing a sense of dissolution. The staring, oversized left eye heightens the terror. The gaping mouth suggests loss of vitality and will. It is only the red brush stroke on her lower lip that suggests some semblance of life and relieves the tension in this morbid face—perhaps it is life's last vestige.1,5,6 She wrote: “My portrait will have a dead expression, thus the painter reveals the soul, and I can't help it. I’m searching for an expression, something gloomier, stronger.”5(p35) Yet, in these same years of her life when she carried out such stark self-examinations of herself in her self-portraits, she painted loving faces of tender Madonna figures, after El Greco.2

The indistinctness of the right side of her face might suggest a neurological disorder, hemineglect; however, this is not the case because subsequent self-portraits show her full face distinctly. Yet the fading out of the right side of her face and the asymmetrical emphasis on the left side heighten the emotional impact of her face for the viewer. Her last self-portrait, done in 1945, the year before her death, is even more terrifying; essentially, it is an outline of her skull, a “living dead” skull. The left-sided bias emains, lending emotion even to a skull-like image.

What accounts for such differences in emotional arousal when viewing the 2 sides of the face? Darwin recognized emotional asymmetry when he noted that, in sneering (or snarling) (an expression of contempt), “the upper lip [is] retracted in such a manner that the canine tooth on one side of the face alone is shown; the face being generally upturned and half everted from the person causing offence.”7(p245) Subsequently, research studies have documented left-sided emotional asymmetry in the face.8 Moreover, studies of differences in emotion perception between the left and right sides of the face in real-life photographs and portraits of individuals document that most observers identify the left side of the face as more emotionally expressive and pleasing.9 These findings are consistent with lateralized emotion and right hemisphere dominance for emotion expression.

Schjerfbeck brings the viewer directly into her isolated self-depiction, in contrast to the Nordic artist Edvard Munch who provides an environmental context for expressed emotion. For example, in his Self-portrait With Spanish Flu,10 Munch depicts himself as debilitated and exhausted, with blurred facial features. All color has left his face and body, and the viewer senses the claustrophobia of a sickroom. His slack mouth conveys a similar anticipation of death to that shown in Schjerfbeck's Self-portrait With Red Spot.5 Unlike Schjerfbeck, however, Munch openly presented his suffering and his emotional inner self, sometimes theatrically. Schjerfbeck was more reserved and does not reveal such illness or fear of life in her paintings. Similar to a mask, the expression is contained in her elementary reductionist faces. Of Munch, she wrote: “There's something about his emotions that alienate me. But a woman feels differently.”5(p38) Together, these 2 artists present images of emotional expression in the modern era, showing us a sense of horror in the transience of life. But for Schjerfbeck, painting was more than depicting a particular affective state. For her, the artist must delve deeper to find existential reality and, from encountering that reality, to know inner peace.

Ahtola-Moorhouse L, edHelene Schjerfbeck. Helsinki, Finland: Finnish National Gallery Ateneum; 1992
Ahtola-Moorhouse L, edHelene Schjerfbeck: 150 Years. Helsinki, Finland: Finnish National Gallery; 2012
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Schneede UM. Thus the painter reveals the soul. In: Görgen A, Gassner H, eds. Helene Schjerfbeck 1862-1946. Munich, Germany: Hirmer Verlag; 2007:33-39
Tams MC. “Dense depths of the soul”: a phenomenological approach to emotion and mood in the work of Helene Schjerfbeck.  Parrhesia. 2011;13:157-176http://parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia13/parrhesia13_tams.pdf. Accessed January 18, 2013Google Scholar
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