Alexej von Jawlensky painted Hélène in 1911, a year that he himself came to consider his great annus mirabilis. Writing in the late 1930s to his friend Pater Willibrord Verkade, the man who had earlier introduced Jawlensky to Synthetism, the artist would recall: 'In 1911 I found personal form and colour and painted powerful pictures of full figures and heads, and made a name for myself with them' (Jawlensky, letter to Pater Willibrord Verkade, Wiesbaden, 12 June 1938, quoted in M. Jawlensky, L. Peroni-Jawlensky and A. Jawlensky (ed.), Alexej von Jawlensky: Catalogue Raisonnée of the Oil Paintings: Volume I 1890-1914, London, 1991, p. 34). This picture shows the eponymous Hélène Nesnakomoff, the companion and maid of Jawlensky's great friend and fellow artist, Marianne von Werefkin. Hélène was the mother of Jawlensky's son, Andreas, born nine years earlier, and would eventually marry the artist over a decade later, formalising their long and complex relationship.
Elsewhere, Jawlensky recalled the sea change in his art that took place in 1911 in greater detail:
'In the Spring of 1911 Marianne Werefkin, Andrej, Helene and I went to Prerow on the Baltic. For me that summer meant a great step forward in my art. I painted my finest landscapes there as well as large figure paintings in powerful, glowing colours not at all naturalistic or objective. I used a great deal of red, blue, orange, cadmium yellow and chromium-oxide green. My forms were very strongly contoured in Prussian blue and came with tremendous power from an inner ecstasy. The hunchback, The violet turban, Self-portrait (now in Basle) and Fantasy head (Gröpel Bochum Collections) were created in this way. It was a turning-point in my art. It was in these years, up to 1914 just before the war, that I painted my most powerful works, referred to as the 'pre-war works'' (Jawlensky, quoted in 'Memoir dictated to Lisa Kümmel, Wiesbaden, 1937', pp. 25-33, ibid,, p. 31).
It is clear, in looking at the bold yellows and greens that make up the face in Hélène, as well as the reds and oranges of the headdress and ornament on the clothes, that this picture is one of those about which the artist was so ecstatic. Others dating from this moment in Jawlensky's career can be found in an array of museums including the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Harvard University Art Museums and many others, a testimony to the quality of the works from that year.
The sudden release that led to the developments in his paintings during his period owed themselves to the great confluence of influences which Jawlensky now combined in a unique way, resulting in a new bold and distinctive style. The forms have become vaguely abstracted and codified in a manner that suggests that the Fauvism and Expressionism that had previously influenced Jawlensky had now fused with recognition of his own Russian origins. For these forms recall the almost abstract appearance of the Orthodox icons of the churches of his youth (even the use of green seems in some way to echo the colours of Russian religious paintings, where it was often used as a ground and sometimes shows through, lending the various saints and Madonnas a faint olive hue). It was at this moment that the importance of the human face, which was to remain so central to Jawlensky's art for the rest of his life, truly came to the fore. In the supine pose with which Hélène has been rendered, the figure recalls religious iconography. And despite the boldness of the colours, whose presence in simple fields itself recalls Russian icons, there is a poise, a contemplative stillness present in this painting that invokes an almost mystical dimension. Discussing his paintings, Jawlensky stated that, 'It became necessary for me to find a form for the face, for I realized that great art was only to be painted with religious feeling. And that was something I could bring only to the human face' (Jawlensky, quoted in C. Weiler, Jawlensky: Heads, Faces, Meditations, London, 1971, p. 30). For Jawlensky, hearkening back to his Russian roots and the influence of these icons, the human face was the perfect archetypal subject in which divinity and beauty could be perceived: 'For me the face is not just a face but the whole universe. In the face the whole universe becomes manifest' (Jawlensky, quoted in ibid., p. 56).
Hlne was split from Mädchen mit roter Schleife, which was originally the verso of the present work, as was the artist's intention per his handlist (see Jawlensky, Peroni-Jawlensky and Jawlensky (ed.), op. cit., 1991, p. 319).