- · vol. 4 · no. 2 · January 2004

Kenneth A. Lockridge is professor of history at the University of Montana. His research interests have ranged widely through seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North Atlantic society.



"When he first met them, Hesselius found Indians repulsive."

Cabinet of Curiosities

Overcoming Nausea:
The Brothers Hesselius and the American Mystery

Kenneth A. Lockridge

Part I | II | III | IV | Further Reading

"Who painted these paintings?"

Sorting my papers at the beginning of class I asked the student to repeat her question, as several of her classmates joined in. What I remember of the conversation follows.

"These two chiefs," she explained, "these Indians."

"Pages thirty-one and forty,’ added a male voice.

Pushing aside my incomprehensible syllabus I lifted up Colin Calloway’s The World Turned Upside Down, a slim volume of Indian voices commenting on the white conquest of eastern America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On pages thirty-one and forty were Lapowinsa and Tishcohan, chiefs of the Delaware, a tribe already betrayed and about to be betrayed again.

Fig. 1. Lapowinska. Painted by Gustavus Hesselius, 1735. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia.

Fig. 2. Tishcohan. Painted by Gustavus Hesselius, 1735. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia.

"Nice paintings," I offered, and they were.

"No," insisted the students, "none of the other paintings of Indians in this book is like these. Who did them? What made him see?"

I looked again. All the Indians in Calloway’s other illustrations looked at us as into a mirror, haughty, stiff, and hopeful. The limners who portrayed them had been equally stiff. Their flat colors, profiled poses and routine backgrounds were from a genre somewhere between tavern signs and a parody of the Great Masters. Lapowinska and Tishcohan looked out from wrinkled faces with the insightful eyes of men who had seen too much. The artist was not a master anatomist but he was a European painter who rendered his subjects in a space that once existed, a claustrophobic foreground deep enough for sculptural figures to emerge from the surrounding dark. A clear glaze over each painting intensified the faces, color, and detail. In these works the painter had risen above himself, above technique, above history. He had seen these chiefs for men.

"Who painted these?" my students asked again, "How could he see so well, why was he different?"

I read Calloway’s caption: "Gustavus Hesselius painted the two Delaware chiefs for the Penn family, Proprietors of Pennsylvania, before the treaty negotiations of 1735."

Then I knew I would be able to seek an answer.

"Gustavus Hesselius" had to be Swedish. My wife’s family is Swedish, our son is Swedish, I speak the language and have done research there. In the last year and more, I have traveled far to find an answer to my students’ question. I’ve left Montana to follow Gustavus Hesselius from Stockholm to New York. Even now, after months of research, I cannot tell you for certain where Gustavus Hesselius got his clear sight during those days in the spring of 1735. But I can try.


Gustavus Hesselius is well known to art historians, and his name appears in encyclopedias. The typical entry reads,

b. in Folkarne, Dalarna, Sweden in 1682, nephew-in-law of Bishop and statesman Jesper Svedberg. With his brother Andreas, a priest in the Swedish Lutheran Church, left Sweden in 1711 toward the end of the disastrous reign of Charles XII seeking opportunity in the former Swedish colonies in Delaware. Gustavus and Andreas arrived in Philadelphia in 1712. Their brother Samuel, also a priest, came several years later. Andreas and Samuel soon returned to take up parishes in Sweden but Gustavus, who had studied painting in Uppsala and Stockholm and was the first professionally trained portrait painter in the colonies, found clients for his skills in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Maryland. He married and began a lineage of wealthy and artistic descendants in America. His son John (1728-1778) eventually moved south and painted the great planters of Virginia on the eve of the American Revolution. Gustavus Hesselius died in Philadelphia in 1755, at the age of age 73.

Fig. 3. Gustavus Hesselius, self-portrait, c. 1740. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia.

This entry alone opens worlds. "Toward the end of the disastrous reign of Charles XII?" By the year Gustavus Hesselius left Sweden, 1711, a fifth of its population had died of battle, disease, and famine in the course of King Charles’s endless war against Norway, Denmark, Poland, Saxony, and Russia. Constant counterattacks against this entire ring of enemies were the only way he could find to save a Swedish empire built up during the Thirty Years’ War. But he could never subdue them all simultaneously. In that same year, Charles endured a humiliating defeat deep in southern Russia and was interned by the Turks when he fled into their territory. Sweden would somehow hold out without him, but when he returned in 1714 to renew his obsessive campaigns his officers would assassinate him to end the nation’s suffering. By then Sweden lay open to conquest. Peter the Great dawdled with reforms while he moved slowly to pluck the Swedish fruit. Pieces of empire fell away like shuttle debris, Kurland, Estonia, parts of Pomerania. "Bishop and statesman Jesper Svedberg?" The patriarchically bearded Puritan whose piety did not prevent him from sweeping together the beginnings of a noble’s estate from the ruins of this crumbling Baltic empire? The man whose son, Emmanuel Swedenborg, would abandon it all to become a mystic? What stories!

And Hesselius’s paintings survive, too, dozens of them, in the Atwater-Kent Museum in Philadelphia, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in the Maryland Historical Society. Art historians have spent decades identifying Hesselius’s paintings, dating them, digging out fleeting references to him in patrons’ letters, and speculating about the painter’s mentality from the ways he arranged pigment around the self-projections of the various members of the colonial elite whose commissions he accepted. Save for brief mention, his ancestors, contemporaries, and children and the historical mansions they inhabited might as well not have existed. One good reason for this focus on the canvases themselves was–and here I reveal Hesselius’s greatest secret–there are no papers. Neither the artist nor his limner son left more than a letter or two and a few legal transactions in the Maryland Archives. Remarks on or about the man in other historical documents are almost nonexistent. He is the ultimate circumstantial case, known only from his milieux, from stray inarticulate facts, and through the rare letter left by himself or others.

Finally in the 1980’s one historian of art, Roland Fleischer, assembled in a great exhibition and its catalog all that was then known of or could be seen by this Swedish painter. Fleischer viewed the paintings in the context of as rich a set of facts about Hesselius as had ever been collected. That was impressive, but the thing I noticed about Fleischer is that he felt a chill go up his spine when he saw the portraits of the Delaware chiefs. He had tried to express in scholarly language the excitement we all felt. "Of the Hesselius portraits, none is superior to these in expressiveness and sensitivity. Many portraits [by others] with more skillful handling are less sympathetically conceived and less capable of evoking the viewer’s interest. Even if Tishcohan and Lapowinska had unusually expressive faces, Hesselius was equal to the task. The nobility conveyed here on canvas is more basic and deeply rooted than that in the majority of eighteenth-century portraits. It rests on the solid foundation of human character and dignity. His powers of personal response to the subject before him were at their peak."

I read this to my students. Yes, we thought, we felt it too. Though to us the expressions on those two faces were somewhere beyond nobility. Those men had seen almost too much. They knew that they would see more of the same, and that they would not lose their dignity.

Fleischer had also published what was then the only known letter by Gustavus Hesselius. What was interesting was not the letter itself but the fact that its appearance in print led Kathryn Carin Arnborg, an obscure graduate student in art history laboring in the ranks of doktorander at the University of Stockholm, to find another and far more significant letter by Hesselius. "I thought it was interesting that America’s first real portraitist was a Swede and that so little was known about him," she told me when we met last summer in Humlagorden, the idyllic park in the heart of busy Stockholm. "So I rang up the Carolina (Carolina Rediviva, the great library of the University of Uppsala, sixty miles up the road from Stockholm) and they said, "Oh, yes, our files show that we have one quite long letter by Gustavus Heselius and several by his brother Andreas." The item by Gustavus was a copy of his first letter home to his mother, written in June 1714, two years after he had disembarked in Pennsylvania, and it contained a revelation for those of us who thought that Hesselius had always seen Native Americans with sympathetic eyes:

Concerning the Indians it is a savage and terrifying folk. They are naked both menfolk and womenfolk, and have only a little loincloth on. They mark their faces and bodies with many kinds of colors . . . The womenfolk shave their head on one side, on the other side they let the hair grow, as long as other women. Here and there bald. They grease their bodies and head with bearfat and hang broken tobacco pipes in their ears, some hang rabbit tails and other devilments, and they think they are totally beautiful.

Some time they eat man meat when they kill each other. Last year I saw with my own eyes that an Indian killed his own wife in broad daylight in the street here in Philadelphia, and that bothered him nothing. While she was dying the other Indians sat around her; some blew in her mouth, some on her hands and feet. I asked one of them why . . . and he answered that a fire coal that would die you must blow on so that it will not go out. When she was dead they all began to shout and had so many awful effects that a man could be scared of them.

Twenty years before his luminous portraits of Lapowinska and Tishcohan, this frightened young immigrant had thought of painting Indian chiefs, but in a very different spirit:

I have always thought of painting an Indian and sending to Sweden . . . Last year one of their kings visited me and saw my portraits they astonished him very much. I painted also his face with red color he gave me an otterskin for my trouble and promised I could paint his Portrait to send to Sweden: but I did not see him later. The king is no better than the others, all go naked and live worse than swine.

When he first met them, Hesselius found Indians repulsive.

Two years after his landing the shock had still reverberated in his letter home. Nothing at home, not even in the collapsing Sweden of 1711, had prepared Hesselius for half-naked aboriginals murdering each other in the streets. Perhaps he still recalled the "filthy savages" he had seen raging in the streets of Philadelphia when, more than two decades later, in 1735, he portrayed Lapowinska and Tishcohan with warts and all. Possibly he meant by the meticulous details, the wrinkled skin, the worn, not spectacular traditional dress and ornaments, that there was still nothing noble about these savages? Their calm gaze and natural stance may have been all he could concede toward the still nobler images his patrons, the Penns, expected Hesselius to deploy to help them flatter the chiefs before they were robbed of their remaining tribal lands. But Hesselius could, on the other hand, have grown in wisdom in the twenty years since he wrote that fright-filled letter. He could have learned to admire the Delaware "savages" who fought so enduringly to preserve their homeland from European and Iroquois rapacity. He might even have become, like his brother Samuel, something of an early anthropologist, seeing in the Indians and their artifacts–in such objects as enigmatic war clubs with mute human faces carved on the killing ball–a lesson in human difference that evoked awe in him. And at the outer limits of human possibility, he might have learned to live with all the manifold "others," the Indians, Germans, Scotch-Irish, and slaves, who already inhabited or, like himself, flooded into the middle colonies in the years 1712-35. Was it the wisdom of a wide tolerance that made his eye dispassionate? If Hesselius became one of the rare persons living in the American colonies in the eighteenth century who first learned to accept a multiracial society, that was a mystery worth exploring.

Early Pennsylvania would have tested any man’s tolerance. By the time Hesselius painted the Delaware leaders, Pennsylvania and adjoining sections of New Jersey and Maryland had already become the model of a new kind of society never before seen in the western world. Indians who refused to be conquered–for a while the Delaware and, south, the Catawba, and always in the north the Iroquois, once the dreadful power brokers of the continent and now the fast allies of the English in the mutual business of conquest and empire–demanded a place at every table. German immigrants in increasing numbers completed the temporary servitude that often paid for their passages to Pennsylvania. They made farms, became British citizens, and the Lutherans among them entered politics en bloc. Among themselves however the Germans fought constantly over religion, and fiercest were the battles of the Lutheran clergy against the Moravians, a sect of aggressive, successful, often female proselytizers rumored to observe weird sexual customs. In their lexicon, Christ’s wound became a vagina. It was as if the Savior had become female.

On the heels of the Germans came the Scotch-Irish, a wild tribal folk nominally Presbyterian who had been moved to Ireland to help subdue the still wilder Irish but had no use for any government and now moved west and south through Pennsylvania in their tens of thousands, taking land as they pleased, killing Indians to get more. Their practices dated from the era when the Scotch ballads had been conceived. Courtship by stealth preceded marriage by abduction. Hillbillies. My people. One Virginia aristocrat called them the "Goths and Vandals" of the age. Among the free English in the east, the prospering Quakers found themselves challenged for leadership by equally wealthy Anglicans and a few enlightened–as they saw it–Scotch Presbyterians. These religions in turn would be challenged, after 1740, by evangelical "New Lights" recruited from all ethnic groups, passionate laymen who regarded all the old churches and their educated ministers with burning contempt. On the coast a few remnant Swedes and Finns joined the mix, mingling with rowdy lascivious sailors and plausible Irishmen running from the Royal Navy or worse.

An underworld of sweat, despair, and deception played itself out on the roads. In eastern Pennsylvania the rising stream of English, Irish, and German indentured servants working for terms from three to seven years to pay for their passages to America was joined by increasing numbers of African slaves, until 30 percent of the labor force in Philadelphia and its hinterland was made up of one form or another of captives. White or black, all could be bought and sold. Many tried to escape. Thousands of advertisements in the Philadelphia newspapers invited bounty hunters to seize the runaways trying to flee from bondage. Scores of men who were little better off than their victims stalked these runaways. They made their livings by shutting up anyone suspect seen on the road and holding them without warrant in hope of a reward. When caught, the laborers ran away again.

Above the mounting cacophony stretched no established state church–for there was religious freedom here in Pennsylvania–and a proprietary government which, save for a rowdy elected assembly, was run by the Penn family. By this time the Penns had converted to Anglicanism and had become obsessed with turning their ownership of the land into massive profits. They found their efforts violently opposed by nearly every other group in the society when these groups were not distracted by their struggles with each other. Sometimes the several religious and ethnic factions jerked about under the manipulations of Benjamin Franklin, the magician of an apparently mad political system, but at other times Franklin’s clever tongue availed him nothing and he became a chip in the storm. No one ruled in Pennsylvania, least of all the king.

If our frightened Gustavus Hesselius got accustomed not just to Indians but also to this kind of society, he was a most unusual Swede. The newly arrived Hesselius would have had to travel far to become a tolerant man. If we are going to make of him a Jason without Argonauts, journeying toward regions of consciousness never before experienced, we need to know the mental distance we are asking him to leap. To understand how great that distance was, we have to locate him first in the almost otherworldly context of the Sweden from which he came.

Old Sweden was a hermetic social universe. By this I do not mean the collapsing Sweden of Charles XII but the ordinary everyday Sweden Gustavus grew up in, a Sweden whose assumptions endured largely intact until the 1980s. It was an extreme model of the way many eighteenth-century Europeans thought about society. Within Sweden itself, there was one folk, one church, and one true realm. By the eighteenth century the Swedish national self was so completely unified that it stayed behind Charles XII as he led the empire and the nation to ruin by facing more enemies than it could handle in the only posture he knew, attack. Only when the nation was exhausted, one in five of its population dead, its external territories disappearing and Russian armies about to invade, did a few officers shoot the mad king and save the nation. The nation could not save itself. It did not know how to disagree with itself.

It is difficult to grasp the daily control exercised over this unitary society by its tribal state. Under something called the Indelningsverk–the Proportion Works–every village was assigned its share of the soldiers needed to defend the realm, and the empire. Local leaders met to provide a cottage–torp–for each soldier’s family while he was away in service, and when he failed to return they chose a replacement. They equipped their troops as sailors, artillerists, musketeers as specified by the Crown. There was never much debate about how many soldiers a given village should send, because the state church kept nearly perfect track of the population in every hamlet in the land. And in this role, as tracker of the population, the Swedish Lutheran Church was sovereign.

Gustavus Hesselius was raised in the parish of Folkaerna in Dalarna, in the traditional heart of Sweden.

Fig. 4. Sweden Landskap. Map by Mark Fritch, University of Montana.

Several times a year, usually in early spring and fall, when good weather made traveling easy, the minister came riding to each hamlet in his parish in a predetermined sequence. Nervous hospitality awaited him at the house of the biggest farmer in the settlement. Dressed in starched collars and black hats the host and his wife waited before the door. Every soul in the hamlet was gathered inside, standing in rough order of rank and age, old farmers and their spouses, younger farm pairs with their children, modest cottagers, day laborers, and male and female servants working on annual contracts for subsistence wages and small respect. Servant girls brought in warm drink or perhaps small beer together with aromatic bakelser from the kitchen hearth just behind the great room where the company stood gathered. Soon the minister, still called a priest–prest–lifted up the heavy house-examination book onto the dark farm table, opened it, and called the first name. It always fell to the host farmer to be examined first. The minister looked up from his book, pen in hand.

The pages of the book were ruled into small rectangles containing on the left a column of the names of the parishioners within this settlement by rank and family, their birth dates and ages. To the rightwards across the top of the page unrolled a series of headings. From each name in the left-hand column extended rightward a corresponding row of blank spaces such that every person would receive a score from the minister under each of the progressively unrolling headings at the top of the page. The headings spoke in plain language: "reading," led the first, then "understanding," then headings for various parts of Luther’s catechism, and farthest right a place for "notes," which usually meant behavior. Every soul in the house would be tested by the minister on his or her ability to read and understand the Word of God as offered by the church and interpreted by it in the catechism. Notes were added describing anything unusual in the examinee’s condition or attitude. While not explicitly political, the catechism made clear that loyalty to the king as the head of the church, and so to the monarchical state to which the church belonged, was a duty to God. If you wanted to move, or marry, or take communion, you had to meet the standards set by the state and enforced in public by its local minister. The leader of the local farmers stepped forward. The minister asked the first question.

Fig. 5. Husfoerhoer record, Tuna Parish, nineteenth century. Courtesy of Swedish Archives Information in Ramsele.

As those assembled rose one by one to be examined, it became obvious that there was a terrible democracy in the process. By the end of the day the meanest servant girl, rising last, could visibly outperform the stumbling master of the greatest farm in the parish. Everyone heard and everyone knew. To remove some of the sting the pastor kept his scores in code, but the meaning of these thin lines with crossing lines and dots above had long since become an open secret in the congregation. The bell-ringer had told his wife. Now they could follow the pastoral hand as he put the dots of highest distinction above the servant girl’s score that he had never entered for the farmer their host. Social pressure proved an effective spur to learning. By 1711 nearly the whole Swedish population could read fairly well and understand the Word and the world in the way their state and its church wished.

In every house in Sweden hung an embroidered picture of the hierarchies of authority in the nation. At the top of the picture was God, beneath him the king, who in principle must obey God, and below the king came the descending channels of secular and religious authority down to the individual household. Within the household the husband ruled over his wife, children, and servants, but his wife had authority over children and servants as well. The hustavla was the Swedish world at a glance. Like all his countrymen, Gustavus Hesselius had this picture in his head when he emigrated.

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