www.common-place.org · vol. 4 · no. 2 · January 2004
"Whatever he felt about Indians or however much he wanted a commission, his painters eye drew him along, whispering, 'Accept. Accept.'"
Yet the paintings did not lie. There is evidence beyond the enigma of oil on canvas to tell us that Gustavus Hesselius began to cross a threshold many Americans then and since have been unable to cross. What happened to him in Pennsylvania changed him progressively but the transformation was latent in his past, a past that distinguished him from his brothers Andreas and Samuel, who did not stand the course but left American to return to Sweden.
The secret lies in a closer reading of Gustavus Hesseliuss first letter home, and in what is known about his life experiences in Pennsylvania and nearby in Maryland and New Jersey over the next forty years.
He began to change already before writing the letter. I believe he knew this and that he wrote the letter in part because he knew he was changing and needed to assure his mother and perhaps himself that she would not lose him entirely. In the simplest sense, of course, he had waited two years to write her because he needed to know that clients would seek out his services and he could earn a living. Unlike his brothers, he was a freelance artist with no churchly sinecure to guarantee him income. Only in 1714 was he certain he could stay a while, though probably he did not know how long. Brother Andreas had surely used his first official report back to the Swedish Church to ask Uncle Svedberg to tell their mother, the bishops relative, that both he and Gustavus had arrived safely across the sea. Gustavus could not have written her a detailed message before being certain he could stay at all. But by the time he wrote her he had already broken convention powerfully. The first thing he had done once income appeared certain was not to write his mother but to marry, and in marrying he had passed over the many attractive young women of the Swedish congregations who for generations provided good wives to imported Swedish clergyincluding one of his brothers and later Nicholas Collinto take the hand of a Calvinist.
In choosing to marry Lydia Getchie he sent a double message, one of several signs in the letter that he had a more complex reaction to his new environment than his words of revulsion might indicate. On the one hand the lady was a Calvinist from a unitary society expressed in a tribal state, Connecticut, so she shared certain assumptions with her husband and probably shared his dismay at what appeared to be Pennsylvanias chaos. On the other hand she was a Calvinist, a religion regarded by Lutherans and Anglicans alike as fanatical and disreputable. The only real Calvinist states included the Netherlands, an internally divided and declining power, a few Swiss cantons, contentious Massachusetts, tiny Connecticut, and a Scotland notoriously rent with bloody struggles between shifting combinations of highland Catholics, lowland Calvinists, and the imperial English. By comparison, Lutheran Sweden and Anglican England stood in the top rank of powerful European states. They prided themselves on being stable sovereign powers possessed of substantial empires. Precisely because its empire had begun to fray at the edges, no nation had more confidence in the rightness of its religion than Sweden. To marry a Calvinist was déclassé and a flirtation with heresy if not anarchy. Hesselius had done something bold. For whatever reason, loneliness, lust, ambition for her dowry, a sophisticated wisdom that leaned him toward the new fashion for tolerance, or all of these at once, he had stepped outside his own intolerant framework. This meant that he had some heavy explaining to do to mother.
Because Hesselius knew his mother would be horrified, he broke the news to her in crafted form in his letter. He conceded that she would be shocked, but he did it in a way that clearly put a touch of humor on the news, admitting that Lydias father is a "Presbyterian or Calvinist a mean odd fellow," a cartoon Calvinist. But, he observes lightly, the man might yet be saved because his other daughter has married an Anglican parson, "so we can hope for the best." There is a nice mix of conventional shock and worldly insouciance in this passage that his mother may read as she likes. Besides, the old man has placed his substantial estate at the couples disposal "while I stay here in this country." He then amplifies this implied promise to return home when he affirms that his bride has converted to Lutheranism and is really an honorary Swede by virtue of her virtuous demeanor and her intentions to move promptly back to Sweden with him. It is at this point that he refers to Pennsylvania as "Sodom," something he half believed at this stage but that was also useful in diverting Mamas attention to greater evils than a once-Calvinist bride.
Hesseliuss letter shows in many ways a more complicated man than my students or I imagined. He is, for example, overwhelmingly ambitious. His father-in-laws stone house and fine gardens are lovingly portrayed. "Since I came to this country I have earned 600 pound," he notes (a good living for a minor nobleman in England ) and "I lived a year with Master Easton one of the most noble English." The passages that report his revulsion with the natives also strain with his desire to paint them. Art and ambition combine to make him say, even as he reports behavior vile to his sensibility, "I have always thought of painting an Indian and sending to Sweden." But art alone speaks when one of their kings is astonished by viewing the painters oil portraits and, to return the compliment, Hesselius takes his own red pigment to mark the kings face in Indian fashion. For an instant the artist touched the face of the other, painting the face of strangeness in a strange manner, and asking in wonder what this other way of painting meant. But when the king does not return to sit for Hesselius he and his like become "swine." Still, just as in the letter we can see that his religion was already bending to embrace one converted Calvinist and her Anglican brother-in-law, so here for a second we can witness Hesselius and an Indian chief gazing at one another, each wondering what magic lay in the art of the other. I do not think this Hesselius is a conventional man. His later life would confirm this impression.
As the years passed word of his professional skills spread through the colonial elite. Commissions for portraits mounted, and it became clear that Gustavus and Lydia would not move to Sweden. He produced scores of works, dozens of which survive. Collectively these paintings tell us that the searching eye of the trained painter could override Hesseliuss ambition as well as his prejudices. He became a portraitist of men, not of women. The absence of paintings of women in his oeuvre puzzled art historians until they turned up a rare piece of documentary evidence that explained the dearth of women. By chance one of his foremost patrons, James Logan, chief justice of Pennsylvania, wrote to a friend that Hesselius would do his likeness but that his wife had refused to be painted by the Swedish artist. In so many words Logan described her complaint as, "He paints what he sees." Hesseliuss renditions of his sitters faces, noted the chief justice, struck most of Pennsylvanias gentlewomen as too "unflattering." Gustavuss ruthless eye took him places he did not want to go. When he lifted his pigment to daub a tribesmans cheek, when he studied the signs of age in a womans visage, his eye ruled him. Whatever he felt about Indians or however much he wanted a commission, his painters eye drew him along, whispering, "Accept. Accept. Paint what you see. Nothing human is foreign to me." Ambition, a fashionable tolerance, and his eye motivated this man, and this time the eye won. Rather than compromise, he went on painting men.
By the time Hesselius accepted a commission to paint a large mural in St. Barnabas Anglican Church in nearby Maryland in 1720, it became clear that he could never remain in the Lutheran fold. Jesper Svedberg had ordered the Swedish Lutheran clergy in America to maintain friendly relations with the Church of England, and, on the way to Pennsylvania, brother Andreas had persuaded the bishop of London to contribute financial support to the Swedish mission there from the Anglican missionary funds for America. The bishop gave gladly, as his church was short of good priests who would go to America and the Swedes preference for moderate religion and strong civil government fit nicely with Anglican goals in the colonies. But Anglicans were not Swedish Lutherans. They served a wealthier clientele and cultivated a stylish stance as religious citizens of the world who were able to see good in many other faiths. When St. Barnabas offered Hesselius a substantial commission to do a mural of the Last Supper, it offered him several temptations. The growing fashion for tolerance among men of the world may have joined social ambition and a good fee to persuade him to take this commission, but, as will become apparent, I suspect that his eye was engaged by this new faith as well. Accepting the job would draw him closer to the visual world of Catholicism, yet another of the religions whose multifarious presences had so alarmed him (though not enough to keep him from his Calvinist bride) in 1714. In all events after he completed the work he spent as many of his Sundays in Anglican churches as in Lutheran, and joined at least one Anglican congregation as member in full communion. From then on he was as much Anglican as Lutheran.
Unlike the still fairly barebones Lutherans, many sophisticated Anglicans had begun to move back toward the Catholic pictorial tradition. Lutheran priests no longer whitewashed religious paintings out of frenzy for the unvarnished word of God, and churches in Sweden had begun to indulge in baroque decorations and occasionally in paintings (indeed, Hesselius had done an altarpiece for a local Lutheran church in 1715, the first religious painting in the colonies). But Lutheranism like most Protestantism remained essentially a religion of print and of the mind. The vivid images of the Protestant tradition still lay in the minds of their despairing believers. The Catholic pictorial tradition, however, was literal, and it stretched back unbroken for centuries. In that church no infusions of reforming asceticism had ever broken the passionate attachment of lay believers to vivid physical representations of Christ, Mary, and the saints. Catholic patronage had generated an abundance of great religious art by the masters of the Renaissance whose art Hesselius had studied in reproduction while training in Uppsala. Throughout the Catholic universe an abundance of statues and colorful plaster or canvas surfaces displayed the miracles and mysteries on which popular faith was grounded. Catholic reformers complained that the people thought that the images were the saints they depicted.
Anglicans had never fully rejected this tradition, and now in the middle of the eighteenth century high Anglican congregations like St. Barnabas returned more eagerly to an appreciation of the spiritual value of pictorial representations than some Lutherans were prepared to do. Anglican piety had never been entirely demysticized. The churchwardens commissioned Gustavus Hesselius to paint "ye History of our Blessed Savior and ye Twelve Apostles at ye Last Supper. Ye institution of ye Blessed Sacrament of his body and blood." When Gustavus Hesselius promised to do a mural at their church, he entered a world of visual piety that his Anglican friends took seriously, and that he had never fully experienced. To some of his brothers in Luther, it must have seemed impure superstition. To him, it may have become pure pleasure. The painting is gone, but the clue to his reaction lies in something he did after. He became an Anglican but, years later, not long before his death, he painted out of his own need the most passionate of representations in all Christianity, the Crucifixion, which he exhibited in the window of his home in Philadelphia. It must have caused talk. If this is the Crucifixion that John Adams later saw in St. Marys Roman Catholic church in 1774, it was Catholic indeed: "A picture," writes Adams, "of our savior in a frame of marble over the altar, at full length, upon the cross in agonies, and the blood dropping and streaming from his wounds." Did Hesseliuss eye and heart finally lead him from a Calvinist bride to a Catholic piety made for a man with a pictorial imagination? There was no fashion in this, so he would have had to keep it secret.
In 1720 he also sold the land in Maryland that he had named "Swedenland" and the following year became a naturalized British citizen, in Maryland. He could never go home to Sweden, metaphorically or literally. Greater Philadelphia was his home. His children attended the English-language services at their Swedish church, not those in Swedish. Eventually he made his home in Philadelphia itself. He continued to do well. Part-Lutheran and part-Anglican, possible sentimental Catholic, once the groom of a Calvinist, he had become everything that in his letter home to his mother he had claimed to despise.