Helene was born in Finland's capital of Helsinki, but has Swedish roots. She was home schooled, but one teacher recognized her talent in art and enabled the ten-year-old to attend lessons at a drawing school in Helsinki free of charge. Thanks to the financial aid she successfully completed her training at the drawing school at the age of fourteen.
In the 1890s she simplified her style, eliminating background detail and reducing her palette. These stylistic changes are seen in many of the portraits she painted of herself, her mother, and others. Schjerfbeck’s work shows a highly individual development, transforming gradually from melancholy, late 19th-century academic Realism to her own very personal style tending towards abstract Expressionism displaying perfectly balanced colors.
In 1880, she received a travel grant which enabled her to study in Paris, where she met the Austrian artist Marianne Preindlsberger, with whom she later travelled to Brittany. In July 1887, she received another travel grant and used it to visit Marianne now married to the artist Adrian Stokes in St Ives.