An important painting by Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck will be presented for sale in Sotheby's
auction of 19th Century European Paintings in London on 20 November 2013. Estimated at £100,000-150,000, The Death of Wilhelm von Schwerin comes to the market from an American Private Collection. It was purchased in Stockholm by Gunhild Åhlén, the grandmother of the present owner. Åhlén assembled an important collection of Schjerfbeck's work, donating Church-goers (Easter Morning) to the Helsinki Ateneum in 1991. The painting has passed down through the family to the current owner and Sothebys sale marks its first appearance at auction.
Adrian Biddell, Head of Sothebys 19th Century European Paintings Department, said: "We are delighted to be offering this re-discovered work by Helene Schjerfbeck in our November sale in London. The depiction of the death of a hero in the heat of battle has a distinguished history, Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolf being perhaps one of the best known. The significance of Schwerin however, was that he was so young, thus a powerful metaphor for the courage of the nascent Finnish state, only ten years after gaining independence from Russia. Schjerfbeck paints the scene in the modernist style that she perfected with a tender simplicity that is visually immensely powerful, and spoke at the time to the country's burgeoning future."
The Death of Wilhelm von Schwerin was painted in 1927 and reprises the subject of two much earlier oils, of 1879 and 1886 respectively. It depicts the passing of one of Finlands youngest military heroes of the Finnish War, fought between Sweden and the Russian Empire from February 1808 to September 1809 and resulting in the eastern third of Sweden being established as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire.
Painting in oil on canvas, Schjerfbeck employs the pared down style that characterises her later work. Even at this stage in her career, history painting was not anachronistic; on the contrary, the artist used the genre to reveal the human condition. The boy soldier Lieutenant Wilhelm von Schwerin showed great valour at the Battle of Oravais on 14 September 1808 defending a bridge at Lillträsket under attack from Russian Cossack forces. Surrounded and wounded by the enemy, he mounted a counter-attack through enemy lines, where he and his men were confronted by bayonet-wielding warriors. After the battle, Schwerin was moved to Kalajoki, where he died of his injuries on 27 September, aged just fifteen. Schwerin's bravery was celebrated and immortalised in a poem that bears his name in J. L. Runeberg's collection of poems, Tales of Ensign Stål, and later captured the imagination of numerous artists including Albert Edelfelt.
Schjerfbeck painted the first version when she was just seventeen (now in the collection of the Villa Gyllenberg); the second version (now in the Turku Art Museum) was completed after the artists return to France, and is painted in the naturalistic style pioneered by Jules Bastien-Lepage and the Pont-Aven artists whom she met and whose work she admired.
The auction record for Schjerfbeck was established at Sothebys London in May 2008 when Tanssiaiskengät; Balskorna (Dancing Shoes) for £3.04 million.