Mans Schjerfbeck (1897-1971) was Hélène Schjerfbeck's nephew, the son of the architect Magnus Schjerfbeck. Magnus also had a daughter, Hanna, through whom the family line continues. Hélène writes in a letter to Einar Reuter, 'Hanna is not picturesque' [contrary to Mans]. Mans, who taught geography, chemistry, physics and geometry at a boy's school in Helsinki and married a fellow teacher of his late in life, is remembered as a quiet, withdrawn, sensitive person who preferred playing his guitar to getting involved in the nasty games of pupils.
As Gotthard Johansson points out, in her later period, Hélène Schjerfbeck invariably painted only two motifs, portraits and still lifes. This asceticism regarding subject matter is, however, only seemingly a limitation. Within these simple motifs there is a world of colour and feeling. 'But it is the visage of the human being that dominates the art of Hélène Schjerfbeck. She never painted portraits in the normal sense, and she most certainly would not have been satisfied with tasks so contrary to her method of working, of endlessly experimenting, balancing, rejecting, resuming and renewing...Even when she painted members of her own family she aimed at something else but likeness' (G. Johansson, op. cit., p. 39).
The present version of Mans, painted in 1928-1929, appears to be the first of a series. Related versions are illustrated in L. Holger, Hélène Schjerfbeck, kvinnor, mansporträtt, självporträtt, landskap, stilleben, Helsingfors, 1997, pp. 78-86. Schjerfbeck painted a second, almost identical version in 1930 (fig. 1). Between the two portraits, or possibly concurrently, she painted a portrait of Mans entitled The motorist (Gösta Serlachius Art Foundation, Mänttä) and later, in 1933, a fourth version, also called The motorist (fig. 2). Johansson comments on this fourth version: 'Her nephew was the model for one of her biggest, both in colour and drawing, most endearingly stylised figure compositions, painted in 1933, called The motorist' (op. cit., p. 39). The fourth version of Mans may well have been executed at the personal request of Gösta Stenman. It was Stenman's habit to urge Schjerfbeck to paint different versions of her most beloved subjects when she was complaining about not having a sitter or about being unable to find a motif. There were always nuances or colours that could be altered or an interpretation that could be rendered differently.
Mans seems to have conformed perfectly with Schjerfbeck's then prevailing mood which was strongly influenced by a book on Modigliani's life and work and also by the literature of Oscar Wilde, in both of which she identified herself. Mans thus became a Wildean dandy, the main attribute of whose in the 1920s was a motorcar - the thing to own - despite Mans never having driven a car in his life.
Comparing the two almost identical versions of Mans, the present work from 1928-1929 and the other from 1930 (fig. 1), one notes that the bow tie in the first is treated more roundly and the face more personally, although it is very hard to pinpoint the divergences in the manner of painting which render the different character qualities. One finds similar jumps from portraying a person to establishing a type throughout Schjerfbeck's work, for example Ulla and The Californian. There is often something in the sitter's complexion and personality that triggers Schjerfbeck to develop the motif into one of her most enduring.
There is not much, if any, likeness between the art of Schjerfbeck and that of Munch. 'However, despite all the differences between them in both character and art of painting, Schjerfbeck's art is not altogether devoid of common links with that of the great Norwegian genius - both have travelled, alone among the Nordic artists, the road from the 1880s straight into modern art and there discovered their true realm' (G. Johansson, op. cit., p. 35).