- · vol. 4 · no. 2 · January 2004



"Gyllenborg represented a new, 'scientific' approach born of the Enlightenment and out of which modern ethnography would emerge. While it was still an aristocratic plaything, the systematic study of strange cultures was about to begin."

Cabinet of Curiosities

Overcoming Nausea:
The Brothers Hesselius and the American Mystery

Kenneth A. Lockridge

Part I | II | III | IV | Further Reading


Gustavus’s brother Samuel met an altogether different fate. Samuel arrived in Pennsylvania in May 1719. From the moment he arrived Samuel spent as much time preaching in Anglican churches as in Lutheran, eventually acquiring an Anglican congregation of his own. When he left Pennsylvania to return to Sweden in 1731 most of the letters of thanks for his efforts were from Anglicans, not Lutherans, and the English priests praised his broad piety and enlightened faith. He was not as popular with some of the Swedes he had been sent to minister to because he was willful and was accused of scandalous behavior, but also in part because he was the first Swedish Lutheran missionary to America to try to convert his Lutheran services entirely to the English language. He could not rest content as a man of the world himself, unless his fellow Swedes in America too joined the world. In this initiative he reversed the whole purpose of Sweden’s great mission to its people stranded along the Delaware littoral, which had been to preserve their national character in the midst of Pennsylvanian chaos. He was an assimilationist. He perceived that the English religion, culture, and language would become the matrix for whatever order would emerge in this tangled land. His effort failed, and he was roundly criticized by some of his countrymen.

Samuel may have been a catalyst in his brother’s ongoing changes. At the behest of their stay-at-home brother Johan, a doctor and the only Hesselius sibling who could be called a scientist, when he went home Samuel took with him a "chest of curious things" that were to weave their way into his country’s increasing awareness of the wide world. Samuel Hesselius’s chest of curiosities is mentioned in the letters of Killian Stobaeus, the founder of the first historical and ethnographic museum at the university in Lund. From there Staffan Brunius, a curator at the modern National Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm, has traced the objects through the papers of the aristocratic scientist Carl Gyllenborg, who in 1739 left the chancellor’s post at Lund to become chancellor at Uppsala and a founder of the National Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Evidently Samuel sent the chest to Gyllenborg in Lund in 1736 with a request that the objects go to his home university of Uppsala. Some of the objects in the chest may have stayed in Lund–whose museum now hangs on the edge of nonexistence as state support is withdrawn–and the rest evidently followed Gyllenborg to Stockholm where some items are probably in the collections of the Ethnographic Museum, though a few may have come to rest eventually at Uppsala. Samuel and brother Johan had catalogued the collection in the years immediately after Samuel’s return from America, but their catalog has disappeared. Samuel’s letter donating the chest mentions many Native American items including "a stone axe," "an Indian idol," and "a belt of wampum," but because the early objects sent by him and others created a fascination with Indians, the ethnographic collections in Lund, Stockholm, and Uppsala are now so full of similar American Indian artifacts of unspecified origin that we cannot know which were sent by the returning missionary.

It is impossible to know which native objects in Lund, Stockholm, and possibly Uppsala were sent by Samuel Hesselius, but it is possible to know in what spirit he sent them to Gyllenborg. In Skolkloster, the seventeenth-century castle on the inland sea called Maelaren, cached among artistic booty seized by the victorious Swedes during the Thirty Years’ War, is a Delaware war club whose like exists in only two other places, Stockholm and Copenhagen. On its killing ball a mute face has been carved.

Fig. 6. Delaware(?) war club; photograph by Tony Sandin, copyright and courtesy of the Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, Sweden

The face is round mouthed in unreadable emotion. In the seventeenth century such objects were called "curiosities." They were collected by aristocrats for display in their castles for the sense of wonder they evoked, of distance, of strangeness. In 1736 Samuel sent his "curious things" to Carl Gyllenborg in quite another spirit. Gyllenborg represented a new, "scientific" approach born of the Enlightenment and out of which modern ethnography would emerge. While it was still an aristocratic plaything, the systematic study of strange cultures was about to begin. Just as brother Gustavus’s letter home survived in a copy in the collections of Germund Ludvig Cederheilm because that aristocrat wished to appear an aficionado of the natural sciences, so Samuel’s letter donating his chest of curiosities survives because it was saved by another aristocrat reaching for science, in this case anthropology. But in his terminology, "curiosa saker," Samuel revealed that the old sense of pure wonder was not dead in him. Creature of human wonder as well as of the Enlightenment, he marveled at the enigmatic objects he forwarded even as in sending them he made himself a scientist and honorary gentleman.

Immediately on Samuel’s arrival in Pennsylvania in 1719, Gustavus began his journey toward Anglicanism and into an ancient and vivid pictorial piety that high Anglicans had never entirely rejected and liberal Anglicans no longer scorned. And soon thereafter, in 1721, he became a citizen of Britain’s world empire, embracing that as well. I cannot help but see Samuel’s wide, tolerant, assimilationist, and, yes, also personally ambitious stance as a spur to his brother’s own growth in these years. Both were becoming men of the world, at home in several traditions. I believe that Samuel’s sense of wonder infected Gustavus as well, and perhaps always had. In 1735, four years after Samuel returned to Sweden and one year before he sent his Indian objects off to Carl Gyllenborg, Gustavus received a commission from the Anglican Penns to paint two Delaware chiefs, Lapowinska and Tishcohan, before a conference that would end in their betrayal. By this time, Gustavus’s ambition and hunger for new experience were beginning to take him far from his origins. His eyes had seen much already. The gazes of his two subjects in the paintings come from the same source of wonder as the silent open mouths of the figures on the Delaware stone clubs in Skolkloster, in Stockholm, and in Copenhagen, or the lost objects from Samuel’s trunk. Samuel and his brother bore simultaneous witness to what was disappearing.

Out of the encounters of cultures, Swedish Lutheran, migrant Calvinist, enlightened Anglican, and Native American, out of social climbing, the uncontrollable passions of the eye, out of a fashionable and socially useful cosmopolitanism and assimilationism, and a not entirely modern sense of wonder, came Samuel, who went home with his chest of curiosities, and Gustavus, who remained to paint the two portraits that so moved my students.

And what happened to Lapowinska and Tishcohan? After their portraits were completed they attended the meeting to which the Penns had summoned them. There they were persuaded to agree in principle to a further purchase of their tribe’s lands in the future. Two years later, under immense pressure, they accepted the Penns’ offer to buy for a fixed sum as much land as a man could walk in a day and a half. On the nineteenth of September 1737, the Penns showed up with three trained runners, the strongest of whom in the next thirty-six hours "walked" off the boundaries of an area nearly a thousand square miles. The Delaware were dispossessed of their homeland. In succeeding years they became vassals to the Iroquois, who called them "women" to their faces at treaty negotiations. The Iroquois sold the tribe’s remaining lands to the Penns and to other land speculators, taking the small profit for themselves.


Hesselius’s story and the Delawares’ fate are more complicated than they have been rendered here. My portrait of the artist would be different now if I could incorporate the sources that have poured across my desk since writing and submitting it. To me he now seems a more deeply moved, even spiritual, man.

I say this first because of the terrible story of his brother Andreas, with whom he had crossed the Atlantic to Pennsylvania and met his first Indian. In my view news of Andreas’s final fate has to have influenced Gustavus just as he raised his brush to portray the two chiefs. Andreas was thirty years old and a rising star on the faculty at Uppsala when he attracted the envy of Bishop Svedberg. The bishop deliberately sent Andreas to exile in America for ten years, as far as he could send him from all opportunities to shine intellectually. Presumably he did it to punish him for pride but Andreas’s brothers, who loved him, did not see pride in him, nor do I. But I do know university politics in Sweden and to me the story is familiar. Peter, the next eldest and himself a priest, spoke for them all when he publicly lamented Andreas’s banishment to limbo, finding nothing good in it. Svedberg then came down hard on Andreas when some of his first reports home on the Swedes in America did not fit the rosy views of the official line. Pennsylvania was hell for Andreas as well, as both Svedberg and Andreas’s brothers had anticipated. When Gustavus had exclaimed, "God help brother Andreas!" it was because he knew that the spirited and widely learned Andreas would suffer trying to bring orthodoxy–let alone sophistication–to colonial Swedes and Finns used to making their own decisions and tempted by the wide choice of ignorant heresies plaguing the land. Once again, with new knowledge Gustavus’s letter acquires deeper dimensions.

Fig. 7. Bishop Jesper Svedberg, 1714. Gripsholm Castle. Courtesy of the Portrait Collection of the National Museum in Stockholm.

Andreas assumed his duties, bearing it so well that even Svedberg grew silent. By the time Gustavus had written, Andreas had already married a local Swedish woman the very day Gustavus wed Lydia, and he twinned with Gustavus’s letter a message of his own informing their mother. When he was allowed to go home after serving his ten years, the parishioners of his Christina congregation gave him warm recommendations. He later admitted that only good books and his interest in botany had enabled him to bear his time in America. His notes at the time also show a remarkable human fascination with the Indians. Enlightenment language occasionally came from his pen, and a draft of a play that summed up the contradictory fantasies about Indians then fashionable in liberal circles, but he was simply a trusting father as he watched an Indian woman cure his sick little son, and spoke only as a reflective fellow thinker when he described the religion of the local tribes. He felt so keenly the destruction that conversion to Christianity worked in Indian converts by cutting them off from all their traditions and companions that he could not bear to fulfill his duty to convert them. Israel Acrelius, who was later sent out to report on the state of the missions to America, would ridicule Andreas for his failure to bring over ‘the heathen,’ but Andreas could not inflict cultural limbo on a people whose views he respected. Most of all, he looked Indians in the eyes. At an early conference attended by Iroquois chiefs, he noticed how the eyes of one chief and his wife revealed an openness and kindness that dispensed with the standard mask of native pride. Perhaps he shared these revelations with Gustavus, who came frequently to his brother’s church.

Andreas had a miserable life after he returned to Sweden in 1723. His wife died in England on the way home. Svedberg sent the widowed man to Gagnef, a parish located near his home in Dalarna but a congregation run by a clique of headstrong elders and a schoolmaster who tortured him for years. Gagnef was worse than Pennsylvania, and far, far from Uppsala. He died a lingering, painful death, probably of cancer in 1733, never having made it back to the center of things. News of Andreas final suffering and death must have reached Gustavus shortly before he painted Tishcohan and Lapowinska, looking into their eyes, seeing in them suffering, endurance, understanding.

The last story is the most dramatic of all. After Lydia died, in 1748 or ’49, when he was only a few years from death, Gustavus Hesselius is reported to have gone to a Moravian leader to help him with the guilt he felt over having beaten his female house slave. Before and after that reported visit, his known contacts with the Moravians increased steadily. The Moravians did not yet forbid slavery, but they were on missions throughout the world to convert slaves, Africans, Eskimos, and all peoples, to their celebratory beliefs. They had already eaten out Pennsylvania Lutheranism from within, pretending to supply qualified ministers while converting most Lutherans to their increasingly unorthodox positions. By 1745 it was becoming known that the Moravians believed the deity was female as well as male, worshipped images of Christ’s wound as a vagina-like opening in which they painted little believers living happily, and celebrated in poetry and on actual occasions the union of male and female sexual organs in marital intercourse. Lutherans and Calvinists throughout Pennsylvania reacted in horror, while the Anglicans looked on with a certain superior amusement.

Despite their reputation, by the mid-1740s Gustavus Hesselius had joined the Moravians, by then about the least fashionable thing he could do. He stood side-by-side with them as they fought the long and sometimes bloody battle for religious preeminence with Swedish and German Lutherans that lasted from 1744 to 1750. His conversion in these years puts the painting of the Crucifixion he hung in the window of his town house in Philadelphia in 1748 in a new light, for the painting now appears not as part of a drift toward Anglo-Catholicism but as a bold public declaration of his adherence to the Moravians and to their vivid revival of the medieval Catholic piety centered on the wounds and blood of Christ. In a letter to the Moravian leader, Count Von Zinzendorf, the Moravian Bishop Cammerhoff tells how seeing Hesselius’s Crucifixion in Philadelphia helped make two slaves aware of Christ’s suffering and open them to this Moravian piety.

Late in his life, then, Gustavus entered the portals of a radically unfashionable religion centered on turning holy suffering into holy joy and actively opening its arms to all peoples alike. I had always suspected that he was a spiritual adventurer, a man of suffering, and of conscience. His daughter and her Lutheran-priest husband barely pulled him back into the fold of respectability before he died. His paintings of Lapowinska and Tishcohan were only the first of his depictions of suffering.

As for the Delaware, already by Hesselius’s death some of them were becoming Moravians too. Their children would live as Moravians at a village named Gnadenhutten.

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