Helene Schjerfbeck's still-lifes are perhaps the greatest expression of her unfettered genius in her entire oeuvre. Although reasonably uncommon in her work - she greatly preferred the possibilities inherent in depicting the human face - Schjerfbeck painted still-lifes throughout her career, seeing them more as a pastime compared to her more usual motifs. Her early still-lifes from the 1890s are free and natural in technique and she continued to explore the possibilities of this genre, creating some of her most daring and innovative work. The reduction of discernible form applied to a flower painting allowed Schjerfbeck a total and unbridled freedom that one seldom finds in her figure pictures or landscapes. In turn, this allowed her to fully explore and develop the synthesis of colour and form. Hortensia (Hydrangea), painted in 1915, is perhaps one of the strongest and most powerful evocations of this artistic freedom in Schjerfbeck's work and one of her most successful works from this period.
'The serenity of Schjerfbeck's still lifes reflects the isolation and solitude through which the artist found the essential: the concentration of mind, contemplation and simplicity of expression provide immediate contact and impact... Schjerfbeck concentrated on painterly aspects when she worked on 'nature morte'. Her still lifes are the very essence of painting, and some are among her finest work' (H. Sariola, 'Nature morte', in exh. cat. Helene Schjerfbeck, Helsinki, 1992, p. 83).
In 1915, Schjerfbeck was living in Hyvinkää. It was the year she first met the forester Einar Reuter (1881-1968), who was to become a lifelong friend and who wrote two biographies on the artist under the pseudonym H. Ahtela. The years that Schjerfbeck spent in Hyvinkää represent the formation of her own individual style. As she moved towards her own particular condensed pictorial language, line ceased to play such a large part in her compositions, replaced instead by the relationship between surface and colour, a concern that preoccupied her to such an extent that she complained in a letter to Maria Wiik in 1914 that 'I don't know how to draw anymore'.
Lena Holger writes that it was in 1915, with the conception of the present work, that Schjerfbeck first decided to execute a painting 'hue in hue', that is to say, depicting the motif in the same colour as the background (op. cit., p. 146). This is what allows Schjerfbeck to explore the tonal varieties of the subject and makes it such a tour de force of colour. Towards the end of her life, Schjerfbeck was once again to explore this challenging but satisfying method of application, in her final self-portrait in oil, Self-portrait, Light and Shadow of 1946 (Ateneum 500). Executed almost entirely in subtle variations of green, Self-portrait, Light and Shadow displays the same preoccupations of flatness and depth as the present work, although the former succeeds in creating a simple, haunting image of mortality, while Hortensia (Hydrangea) presents an altogether more accessible motif. Another important difference is the variety of colour with which Schjerfbeck imbues her seemingly monochromatic flowers. In a way that recalls Whistler's symphonies of colour almost as much as Schjerfbeck's serene portaits of her mother recall the motif in James McNeill Whistler's oeuvre (see particularly Ateneum 211-212), Schjerfbeck introduces greens into the flowers and purples into the background to create an intensity and depth to her forms. Of course, unlike in her final self-portrait, the artist breaks up the composition of blue with the greens of the leaves and pinks of the stems, although, as Holger points out, it was the clusters of flowers she was most interested in depicting (loc. cit.).
Schjerfbeck depicts a hydrangea in another composition from 1915, The Red Apples (Ateneum 243). According to Ahtela, Schjerfbeck struggled with this painting and, in keeping with her sense of perfectionism, returned to it until she felt she had it just right. Writing just after its execution, Schjerfbeck stated that 'if you paint just in one hue everything has to be done at the same time'. Possibly a reference to the challenge she was just about to set herself in Hortensia (Hydrangea), the present work therefore represents a vastly different way of working than she usually undertook. In its freshness and spontaneity one could well believe that Hortensia (Hydrangea) was perfected in a short space of time, a method so alien to her constant scraping back and reworking that characterises most of her compositions.
One of the most striking aspects of Hortensia (Hydrangea) is its arresting luminosity. Although Schjerfbeck would sometimes 'blame' the lighting on sunlight pouring in through the window (as in The Red Apples), Schjerfbeck's flowers seem to glow from within, in a way, as Holger points out, that is reminiscent of Rembrandt. In this respect it recalls aspects of several other works of this time, most notably the white dress of Maria of 1909 (Ateneum 214) and the girl from The Tapestry of 1914-1916 (Ateneum 235).
Hortensia (Hydrangea) was bought from Schjerfbeck by her cousin, Esther Lupander, who was the model for Schjerfbeck's 1882 painting Dance Shoes, one of her most famous motifs and one that she would return to at several times throughout her career. After Schjerfbeck painted her, Esther's family nicknamed her 'Grasshopper' for her long legs.