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The lady vanishes: how Helene Schjerfbeck painted her own demise

No calm water: Helene Schjerfbeck, as depicted by herself, in 1912
No calm water: Helene Schjerfbeck, as depicted by herself, in 1912

The old woman who introduces herself as Helene Schjerfbeck is not who she says she is. As she hobbles through the Finnish coastal town of Tammisaari, dressed in the kind of heavy black cotton dress that went out of fashion some time in the 19th century, she points out some noteworthy spots: here, a tree immortalised in a picture that hangs in the national art collection in Helsinki; there, the old piano teacher's house which once provided lodgings for Schjerfbeck, now regarded by many Finns, 73 years after her death, as their country's greatest artist – and the subject of a major new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Shielding her eyes from the glittering Nordic light and gesturing towards...

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