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Helene Schjerfbeck: Convalescent, 1888


The Convalescent by Helene Schjerfbeck (1863–1946) originally had a mixed reception. The painting was displayed at a time when the discourse on art was dominated by the issue of realism. Some considered the painting altogether too realistic, while others did not think it was quite credible.

According to the Uusi Suometar newspaper, Schjerfbeck’s earlier works had “…always been rather stiff, while also strikingly ‘mannered’.” They had a deliberate brutality which was nevertheless at odds with the artist’s often sentimental subject matter. The writer remarked that “In the public opinion, this painting by Miss S is ‘too realistic’. We cannot, however, concur, because if there is something amiss with the painting, it is precisely that it is not realistic enough: it does not show nature in all its simplicity, but instead a somewhat affected painterly virtuosity.”

The reviewer in the newspaper Finlandwrote that “…the sick child seems contrived.” It was not enough to depict a child with tousled hair and drowsy eyes to make her appear ill. The writer would have preferred to see a fully recovered child, drumming her fingers impatiently on the table top. According to the writer, sickness is beautiful only when it elicits compassion, but in this case the picture was unconvincing, because the child was merely a healthy sitter made to seem sick: “all we see in the child is tendentiously masked health.” Therefore the publication of the picture was, in spite of its technical merits, an embarrassing experience. It is interesting to note that the writer in question was Fanny Churberg, one of the pioneers of Finnish art.

The Convalescentended up in the collection of the Finnish Art Society and, from there, at Ateneum in 1888. The society did not pay the 1,000 marks Schjerfbeck had asked for the painting, but managed to negotiate a 20-percent discount. In today’s currency, the purchase price would have been just under 4,500 euros.