In the intensely competitive field of Fine Arts, many successful painters attribute their success to their own talent. Johann Berthelsen, however, was an exception. From the financial difficulties of his early career to the success of his later years, he always gave credit to his wife, Helenya, of whom he said, ”Fifty percent of every painting is her inspiration.” Although she was perhaps as much a part of his career as he was – offering helpful advice, antiquing his frames, managing the accounts and raising their three children – to consider her only in the context of Johann’s life would do a disservice to her own remarkable story.

Helenya Kaschewski was born in Iowa in 1899, one of six children. Her father, a German immigrant, was a successful clothing manufacturer. Her mother’s family was Polish and related to the writer, Joseph Conrad. Though the family was exceptionally affluent, the household was not a happy one, as her father was domineering and prone to violent outbursts. To escape the difficulties at home, she and her sister were sent by their mother to a convent school. On completing their studies, the girls returned home to discover that the domestic situation had not changed. Almost immediately, they traveled to Chicago, determined to make careers in the theatre.

Both girls were attractive and evidenced real talent. Helenya had a fine voice and moved gracefully. After early successes in Chicago, they moved to New York to take advantage of the opportunities offered by Broadway.

A natural actress, Helenya was soon appearing in reviews and stage shows with some of the leading players of the time, including Gilda Gray, and some who would later become famous such as Jeanette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Libby Holman and June Allyson. On one occasion, she acted as understudy for Helen Morgan. In between theatrical engagements, she sang in popular nightclubs and posed for leading painters including George Luks, Dean Cornwall, George Bellows and Leon Krull. On one occasion, she danced a tango with movie star, Rudolph Valentino, and later with George Raft.

A serious artist, she constantly sought ways of improving her technique, and it was through a course of voice lessons that she met Johann Berthelsen.

Following her marriage, she had to choose between continuing her career and family life. Always attracted to children, she chose the latter and determined to provide the warm and loving home environment she had always dreamed of as a young girl.

In the darkest days of the Depression, as Johann struggled to find acceptance as a painter, she provided the assistance, encouragement and equilibrium that saw her family through the worst.

Always in love with her and keenly aware of her many contributions, Johann did what he could to show his appreciation. Knowing her love of antique silver, he would occasionally sell an “extra” painting and use the proceeds to surprise her with a little gift.

Throughout their life together, she was always a source of inspiration and encouragement and, for her children, someone who possessed the wisdom to help guide them in critical times.

She passed away in 1994 at the age of 94. In the words of her son, Lee, “My mother’s life encompassed virtually the entire 20th century – both the best and worst of it. I’ve always felt that performers have to have an almost childlike faith in the future, an ability to believe that through some magic, everything will turn out right in the end. I think it was that faith that brought my mother – and by her example the rest of the family – through the toughest times.

Looking back, I see more clearly what my father knew: that Helenya Kaschewski possessed many gifts but chief among them was the power of inspiration, and she shared it with her family and all who knew her.”