Helene Schjerfbeck, On the Jetty, 1879, oil on canvas, Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation. Photograph: Sampo Linkoneva.

Helene Schjerfbeck’s painting On the Jetty now complements the Serlachius collection

This summer, Serlachius Museum Gösta’s Manor offer an opportunity to see Helene Schjerfbeck’s early work On the Jetty from 1879. The painting, which has hitherto been privately owned, has rarely been seen in a public exhibition – perhaps only once before.

Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) painted On the Jetty at the age of just 17, possibly at Sjundby Manor in Siuntio, where she spent long periods of time with her relatives. Those visits were very important to young Helene, and she later remembered them fondly in many of her letters.

The painting On the Jetty was completed the same year that Helene graduated from Adolf von Becker’s Academy of Art and for the first time participated in an exhibition. She had begun her art studies at the Art Society’s drawing school in the autumn of 1873 at the age of eleven. After graduating there four years later, she went on to study at Adolf von Becker’s private art school, where she became acquainted with French outdoor painting.

Love for the archipelago is reflected in the painting

According to art historian Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse, On the Jetty is a well-suited subject for a young artist who loved the archipelago. Helene, who damaged her hip as a child, enjoyed navigating the water and even crewed on her cousin’s sailboat. Her reduced mobility did not bother her on the water as much as on land.

The painting depicts a young woman raising a flag on the pier to signal a steamboat or boat operating so that it would stop to pick up passengers. An older woman waits on the bench on the pier, sitting slightly bent forward. The woman’s posture is familiar from several of Schjerfbeck’s later modernist works.

“The painting speaks about the life of the social upper class at that time and shows how enthusiastic Helene was already at a young age about fashion and its expressive power. There is also a bit of moving girlishness in the work, a young woman’s dreams of elegance, even though the presence of the old age reminds us of the circle of life,” says the art historian who has in-depth knowledge of Schjerfbeck’s work and life.

The young artist shows her brave nature  

Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse sees the influence of the Adolf von Becker’s Academy in the work. The young artist may have been able to get acquainted with the paintings of artists from the Danish Golden Age, in which landscape and persons are similarly intertwined in an atmospheric way.

The insightful use of layers of paint also reflects von Becker’s teachings. The colour nuances of the older woman’s dark outfit have been brought out nicely. “The composition against the seabed is bold and challenging in itself. Schjerfbeck was dramatic from a young age.”

According to Ahtola-Moorhouse, young Schjerfbeck shows her brave nature in her painting. She has boldly used contrasts and skilfully brings out the intensity of colours. She also successfully depicts the differences of young and old age.

“A hunchbacked old woman sitting wearing her dark dress beside a luscious young woman standing upright in her glowing green dress with a yellow straw hat on her head. The old one just sitting there, while the young one pulls the flag and is active,” she describes.

A valued addition to Serlachius’ Schjerfbeck collection

The painting On the Jetty has been in the possession of the same family for decades. It has remained unknown to the general public, as it has probably only been on public display at the Helene Schjerfbeck memorial exhibition held at Kunsthalle Helsinki in 1954. 

The painting has been mentioned in the exhibition catalogue and in H. Ahtela’s publication Helene Schjerfbeck, published in 1953, where it is referred to as Flaggan hissas, c. 1880. There is also a small sketch of the work in ink and watercolour on paper, which is in a private collection.

According to Pauli Sivonen, Director of Serlachius Museums, the painting complements well the Art Foundation’s Schjerfbeck collection, which has been augmented in recent years with several significant works. Already in his time, Gösta Serlachius bought works directly from the artist. However, the Schjerfbeck collection has gained weight, especially during the last ten years.

“Although it is not one of Schjerfbeck’s modernist masterpieces, it is a great demonstration of her growth as an artist and deserved to be included in the collection. Before this, the foundation doesn’t have many of Schjerfbeck’s early works,” Sivonen says.

Susanna Yläjärvi
Information Officer