We are grateful to Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse for her assistance in cataloguing this work.
Helene Schjerfbeck executed works on the themes of El Greco most fervently during her final years of painting, however, her interest in the proto-expressionist El Greco started in the early part of the twentieth century. As Jeremy Lewison has noted, Schjerfbeck’s 1907 painting Silence ‘appears to mark the first time that El Greco made an impact on her work’ (J. Lewison, ‘The Mask and the Mirror’, in A.-M. von Bonsdorff, R. Bray, D. de Chair & J. Lewison, Helene Schjerfbeck, London, 2019 p. 45). It was the dramatic nature of El Greco’s works and their sense of excessive tension that appealed to Schjerfbeck, as to many other European expressionist artists of the time.
Schjerfbeck’s first painting constructed explicitly after El Greco’s work, which she had only seen as a black-and-white reproduction, was completed in 1928. Before this, aspects of El Greco can be detected in many of her portraits, and the image of the Madonna after El Greco was dominant in Schjerfbeck’s series of work from the 1940s onwards. Altogether Schjerfbeck interpreted this mild and benevolent image of the Madonna more than ten times, and this gouache and watercolour of Madonna Immaculata, after El Greco is one of her last interpretations on the theme. It is also different from the majority of her Madonnas as in this example we see her Madonna looking upwards, however, for most of Schjerfbeck’s Madonnas the eyes tend to be downcast. The work is titled Madonna Immaculata, but the face is even more reminiscent of El Greco’s Madonna from the painting Pentecost, circa 1600, in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. One cannot help but admire how Schjerfbeck was able to still imbue her work with such a continued emotional poignancy throughout her career; with her typical use of black rimming between the veil and forehead, skilfully placed to sharpen the atmosphere of the portrait, the Madonna’s trance suggests that she is reaching out to a world beyond.