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Art and Images in Psychiatry
January 2009

The Convalescent

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(1):10-11. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2008.529

I have always searched for the dense depths of the soul, that have not yet discovered themselves, where everything is still unconscious—there one can make the greatest discoveries.1(p28) . . . It is basically human life that most fascinates me.1(p21)

For it lies in art's power to yield warmth to those we cannot reach, yet who need somebody.2(p9)

Helene Schjerfbeck's (1862-1946) painting The Convalescentwon a first-class bronze medal at the 1889 World Fair in Paris.3It was purchased by the Finnish Art Society for its collection at the Ateneum Art Museum in the year of its completion. It was soon dubbed ‘pearl of the Ateneum.’2(p9)For a 26-year-old artist to achieve such recognition was exceptional. The painting had been exhibited earlier the same year at the Paris Salon as The First Greening (Première verdure), signifying the hope of an approaching spring.3However, given Schjerfbeck's personal history, its subsequent and enduring name, The Convalescent, is more appropriate. Schjerfbeck's biographers suggest that she poured pent-up emotions into it, drawing on her long history of both illness and recuperation.1,2

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946), Finnish. The Convalescent, 1888. Oil on canvas, 92 × 107 cm. Ahtela 1953, No. 171. Ateneum Art Museum—Finnish National Gallery (http://www.ateneum.fi/en/), Helsinki, Finland. ©2009, Permission by Carl Appelberg for the Schjerfbeck estate.

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946), Finnish. The Convalescent, 1888. Oil on canvas, 92 × 107 cm. Ahtela 1953, No. 171. Ateneum Art Museum—Finnish National Gallery (http://www.ateneum.fi/en/), Helsinki, Finland. ©2009, Permission by Carl Appelberg for the Schjerfbeck estate.

Illness defined her childhood. At age 4 years, she fell down stairs and injured, most likely fractured, her hip. This left her bedridden for months and resulted in a hip deformity and lifelong limp that worsened when she was tired or stressed. Her parents were protective, having lost a 2½-year-old daughter just before she was born and 2 other children in their first year of life, during Helene's preschool years, one when she was 3 years old and the other when she was 5 years old.1Her mother was bereaved and a nurse, Maija, took care of Helene (written communication, Sirkka Jansson). Only Helene and her brother, Magnus, survived to adulthood. Because of the injury, she was privately schooled until, precociously, she was admitted at age 11 years to the coeducational Finnish Art Society drawing school as a special student in Helsinki. Her admission was based on her drawing portfolio, which was submitted to the Art Society by her teacher. Despite misgivings about her admission after her age was known, the decision was not reversed; the next oldest child in the school that year was 16 years old.

When Schjerfbeck was 12 years old, her father, an office manager in the Finnish State Railway, died of tuberculosis. Years later she fondly recalled that he was the first to give her drawing lessons and that he taught her a long remembered religious hymn1(p36)about faith and unselfish love that sustained her throughout her life. After his death, her father's physician friend, Professor George Asp, provided the financial support needed to complete her schooling. She continued to study in Helsinki privately for 2 years until 1880 when, at age 18 years, she received a senate travel grant (1500 Finnish marks) to study in Paris. The authorities were impressed with the quality of her painting Wounded Warrior in the Snow. It depicts a young wounded soldier who leans against a birch trunk, watching as his fellow troops vanish over the horizon; it too may have autobiographical underpinnings.1In Paris she excelled in human figure drawing.3From 1883-1884, she painted in Brittany at Pont-Aven. There she fell in love and was engaged to a 35-year-old English artist. That same year, 1883, one of her paintings was accepted at the Paris Salon.

Unfortunately her fiancé broke their engagement because of her family history of illness, especially of tuberculosis, he said, and possibly his fear that her hip injury was tuberculous. He announced the broken engagement to her in a letter. Distressed, she destroyed all his letters; his identity remains unknown. In 1887, still devastated by his rejection, she was granted another art travel grant that allowed her to accept an invitation to stay with an artist friend and her husband in St Ives, England. Her friend encouraged this visit to help her continue to work after the failed engagement.1(p24)

In St Ives in Cornwall on the coast of England, she painted The Convalescent(cover), a delicate painting showing a rare sensibility. Wrapped in a white sheet, a child with tousled hair sits on a cushion in a wicker chair. She leans forward to inspect the opening buds on a spring branch placed in a china cup. She is intent, seemingly transfixed by this first greening of the season. Her face shows a touching sense of wistfulness. Light streams through the window, passing through the wicker chair, illuminating the water in the glass and the greenness of the budding branch. On the table are a pencil, a red pen wiper, and a bottle of ink; in the background is a bookcase. These were the objects in the tower room of her studio. Her young model was carefully chosen; the light highlights the youthful quality of her face.

The Convalescent1,3is generally interpreted as autobiographical, reflecting the artist's long convalescences from illness, her continuing physical frailty, and a lingering emotional distress from the broken engagement. Schjerfbeck shared this childhood memory with her biographer in 1914:

A large poorly-lit room . . . There I lived with old Maija, the north-country nurse—and then one day a great happening, a small girl from the courtyard gives me a rose and a branch of “broken heart [garden flower that when opened resembles a broken heart].” They are put in a glass on the window shelf, high up where I can see they are mine. I can still picture them clearly, the pink rose in the glass, pretty and wonderful. Then years of illness until the age of ten, bedridden, not playing like the others. Father gives me paper and pencil, Mother nurses.3(p48)

During that time, society showed little sensitivity to people with handicaps. A local artist in St Ives had noted her arrival and written that she had wonderful talent but was “unfortunately lame.”

In 1894, Schjerfbeck returned to Helsinki where she accepted a 5-year contract as a teacher at the Art Society drawing school. But she was frequently ill with long bouts of illness requiring extended treatment. Fortunately, she found a mountain sanitarium in Gausdal, near present-day Oslo, Norway, where a caring physician provided the emotional and spiritual support she needed to regain her self-confidence during her recovery. Her physical condition was aggravated by the daily climb up a steep flight of stairs to her office in the museum. In 1897 her older brother, Magnus, an architect, married, leaving her with the responsibility of their mother's care.

Schjerfbeck was awarded a second 5-year teaching contract in 1899 but was unable to honor it because of recurrent illness. Moreover, the academy's emphasis was on nationalist and romantic art that did not appeal to her. This left her at odds with the art establishment. Finland was an autonomous grand duchy of Russia until 1917 and the art establishment preferred painters to focus on nationalist themes. In 1900 after a severe bout of influenza, she took a leave of absence; she resigned the following year, leaving behind many talented students. On the advice of her physician, she convalesced in the healthier climate in the city of Hyvinkää; her mother joined her there in 1902. Living near the railway station in a rented room with a kitchen, she was determined to paint at least an hour a day. In relative isolation there, she developed her particularly modern and expressive style, working with local models who appealed to her sensibility.

Because Schjerfbeck was a well-known woman artist, her friends encouraged her to advocate for a woman's right to vote. In 1906 when women were granted the right to vote in Finland, Schjerfbeck wrote to a friend that “The only thing I wish for with women's right to vote is a smoothing out of the inequality of the morality of men and women, for in no other way will this affect us. This is simple and just.”1(p26)

In 1912 when Schjerfbeck was 50 years old, the Finnish journalist and art dealer Gösta Stenman (1888-1947) rediscovered her youthful works and sought to enhance her reputation by creating a market for her paintings; he then became her agent. He encouraged her self-portraits, which unflinchingly chronicled her emotional life and her appearance into her 80s.4She completed 40 self-portraits, 20 of them in the last years of her life. In the spring of 1915, forester, writer, and artist Einar Reuter (1881-1968) visited her in Hyvinkää and began a lifelong friendship, later writing her biography under the pseudonym H. Ahtela.

Schjerfbeck was able to maintain her curiosity and artistic skills throughout her life and continued to paint despite her health, writing to a friend, “I have spent more time mending in my life than I have painting.”1(p195)With the encouragement of her art dealer, she returned to The Convalescentmany times and in various media, continually reinterpreting her earlier work. The last of these was completed in 1945, more than 50 years after the original. Later, more modern, versions often eliminate the pathos and show the fragile child more alert and energetic. That first moment of hope with its warm and wistful intensity could not be replicated. The original painting continues to move us most.

Acknowledgments:Professor Irma Szymanski, MD, who proposed the painting for the cover and provided reference materials; Carl Appelberg, who provided copyright permission; and Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse, chief curator, Ateneum Art Museum, who clarified issues about the artist’s life and work.

Ahtola-Moorhouse  L The life and work. Görgen  AGassner  H Helene Schjerfbeck 1862-1946. Todd  JHackston  D Munich, Germany Hirmer Verlag2007;Google Scholar
Sinisalo  S Introduction to the art of Helene Schjerfbeck. Ahtola-Moorhouse  L Helene Schjerfbeck. Helsinki, Finland Finnish National Gallery Ateneum1992;Google Scholar
Levanto  M Helene Schjerfbeck: Convalescents.  Helsinki, Finland Finnish National Gallery Ateneum1988;
Facos  M Helene Schjerfbeck's self-portraits.  Woman's Art Journal 1995;1612- 27Google ScholarCrossref