Jenny Nyström was a portrait painter and a pioneering picture-book artist, the first person in Sweden to make a profession of illustrating children’s books. Her classicist visual language had a decisive influence on the emergence of the mass-produced image in the country. Firmly rooted in the academic tradition and familiar with its formulas, she removed its solemn stamp of high culture and carried over history, religious and genre painting into the more modest world of the illustration.
Nyström’s training included studies at the Gothenburg Museum School of Drawing and Painting (now the Valand Academy of Arts) and, from 1873 to 1881, at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. There, she won the royal medal for the competition subject Gustav Vasa as a Child before King Hans. Nyström received a travel scholarship from the Academy in 1882 and moved to Paris, where she exhibited at the annual Salon. In 1886 she returned to Stockholm and married Daniel Stoopendaal, a medical student. In 1893, their son Curt was born. It was during her time in Paris that Nyström painted the The Convalescent.
Around the turn of the 20th century, convalescing women and girls were a popular theme in visual art. In the painting The Convalescent from 1884, Nyström has chosen to represent the subject from the narrative perspective of the classicist tradition, with an idealised young female figure at centre stage, hovering between life and death. The seriously ill patient is contrasted with the shamelessly healthy-looking and pretty girl standing by her side. The invalid looks upwards, trustingly placing her fate in God’s hands. The picture is full of overt symbols, like the dead potted plant set against the bouquet of living flowers. The compositional pattern, centered on the histrionic body language and facial expressions of the figures, has its roots in an older anecdotal tradition. In early 19th-century genre painting, the figures often pose as they do here, on a kind of spotlit stage, creating a sense of distance.
In the 1870s and 1880s, women artists and writers had managed to carve out considerable space for themselves on the public art scene, shaking the male norm of the artist to its foundations. The many representations of convalescents should therefore be linked to the major backlash that came in the 1890s against the “New Woman” – the professional woman of the day. Misogynous subjects like this ultimately had to do with norms regarding the female body and the construction of prevailing views of femininity. In the 19th century, two important images of women took shape: the weak, delicate and sickly upper-class woman and the strong, dangerous and infectious woman of the lower classes. The convalescent became a symbol of subordination, of the fragility of “womanliness”, and hence proof of women’s inability to participate in public life. These pictures can be seen as a reaction to the emancipation of women at that time and an attempt to return them to the home and the private sphere.