In her self-portrait Smoking Girl (1940), Tove Jansson coolly narrows her eyes as she draws on a cigarette. It is an image that perfectly encapsulates Jansson’s courageous, independent spirit. As a bisexual woman who came of age in the years before World War II, she refused to be constrained by the patriarchal, heteronormative Finnish society of the day and forged a wholly unique path as a painter, illustrator, and writer. “Work and love” was the motto Jansson chose for herself, and she approached both with an uncompromising joie de vivre.

Jansson is still primarily known for her books and comic strips of the Moomins, whose delightfully quirky, warm, and inclusive world is adored by adults as much as children. However, recent biographies (books, as well as a major film) have fueled interest in both Jansson herself, and her wider work as an artist. Now, a major exhibition in Paris, “Houses of Tove Jansson,” curated by the Parisian art institution The Community, is presenting the full extent of her extraordinary oeuvre. The exhibition also includes work by contemporary artists responding to different aspects of Jansson’s life and work, including Vidya Gastaldon and Emma Kohlmann.

The daughter of the Finnish sculptor Viktor Jansson and his Swedish artist wife, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson (known as Ham), Jansson was destined to become an artist from an early age. She soon followed her mother’s career path, working for the satirical magazine Garm where her mocking cartoons of both Hitler and Stalin were an early indication of her fearless spirit. During World War II, Russia was Finland’s enemy, but Germany was considered a friendly power. Jansson was playing with fire by criticizing both.

Jansson’s flair for narrative was as evident in her painting as it would be in her later works of fiction. Many of her early canvases, such as Ensittaren (Recluse) (1935), have a magical, fairytale element. “She had this idea of a paradise which would be a remote place, community-driven, and it would be her and her friends living in a commune and creating,” The Community’s Tuukka Laurila told Artsy.

There was room for drama, too. “In a lot of her art you see her paintings as these frozen moments in a story, you can sense a before and after, and things left unsaid,” James Zambra, Jansson’s great-nephew and creative director at Moomin Characters Ltd., told Artsy. This is certainly evident in Family (1942), a key work in Jansson’s oeuvre. “Essentially, it’s a portrait of war,” said The Community’s Sini Rinne-Kanto. “Tove is in the middle, in a kind of mourning attire, surrounded by her parents and two brothers, one of them in uniform. It’s a very interesting painting, very loaded.”

Laurila believes Jansson’s gift for storytelling is most evident in the large murals she created during the 1940s, such as the one for the dining room of Helsinki City Hall, which has a particularly notable cast of characters. Center stage, in a stunning strapless gown, is the theater director Vivica Bandler, who at the time was Jansson’s lover. Having had a number of male lovers, the discovery that she was attracted to women was a revelation for Jansson, but she refused to hide her sexuality, even though homosexuality was illegal in Finland. The mural can be seen as a very public declaration of their love. Jansson herself sits in the foreground. At her elbow can be seen a tiny Moomintroll.

The first Moomin book, The Moomins and The Great Flood, appeared in 1945, but Moominmania did not really take hold until the 1950s when Jansson started producing comic strips for the London Evening News, which were distributed worldwide. Although Jansson felt that the Moomins eclipsed her work as a fine artist, and was undoubtedly stung by the criticism of fellow artists who accused her of selling her soul to commercialism, her picture books—like the vibrant, Matisse-inspired The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My—are arguably works of art in their own right.

Jansson eventually abandoned her comic strips in the late 1950s to give herself more time to paint and write. In this endeavor she had invaluable support from the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, known as Tooti, whom she had met in 1956 and would become her partner for the rest of her life. The couple lived in neighboring apartment blocks in Helsinki and would visit each other via a secret passageway.

In the 1960s they built a house on the remote island of Klovharu, giving Jansson access to one of her favorite subjects: the sea. When she experimented with abstraction in the 1950s and ’60s, her works that focus on the sea are the strongest.

For her last works, painted in Paris in 1975 when she was staying at the Cité International des Arts with Pietilä, Jansson returned to the figuration to which she was undoubtedly better-suited. A delightful painting of Pietilä hunched over her drawing board celebrates the creativity on which they both thrived. Jansson also painted a remarkably frank Self-Portrait (1975), in which she portrays herself with red-rimmed eyes and sallow skin. Although the artist herself called it the “ugly self-portrait,” Rinne-Kanto sees it as an image of “a very experienced, mature artist painted in a very beautiful and poetic way.”

Throughout her career, “you can see that Tove writes, illustrates, and paints her own life into her work,” said Thomas Zambra, another of Jansson’s great-nephews who also works at Moomin Characters Ltd. “It is very hard to decouple her work from her life.” Jansson’s firm belief in inclusiveness and tolerance, coupled with a love of nature and creativity, mean that both the life she led, and the work infused with her values, remain enduring sources of inspiration today.