Gustavus Hesselius


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Robert Feke (c. 1707—1751)

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577—1640) painter


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Painter. The leading artist in the mid-Atlantic colonies during the first half of the eighteenth century, in 1712 he arrived in Philadelphia as a trained artist. For several years after 1719 or 1720, he lived in Maryland but then returned permanently to Philadelphia. In addition to portraits, his chief subjects, he is known to have painted religious scenes, which number among the earliest colonial examples. Similarly, his two surviving mythological subjects may have been the earliest classical works executed in North America. As was the custom among painters of the period, he also accepted varied decorative tasks. Born in Falun, Sweden, Hesselius lived in also Folkarna and Uppsala before spending several months in London on his way to America. Like other colonial portraitists, he derived poses and settings from imported engravings, but his familiarity with late Baroque tradition enabled him to integrate such borrowings more seamlessly than did less technically skilled contemporaries. Although he sometimes drew awkwardly, he convincingly rendered texture, atmosphere, and three-dimensional form. Quite remarkably for their time, his best portraits transcend physical description to capture the individual personalities of his sitters. In 1735 he painted bust-length images of the careworn Delaware Indian chiefs Tishcohan and Lapowinsa (both Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia), who had come to Philadelphia to negotiate a land dispute. Thought to be the first objective renderings of America's indigenous peoples, these dignified portrayals capture an inner life as well as respectfully observed details of physiognomy and costume. About five years later, Hesselius painted unostentatious half-length pendants of himself and his wife, Lydia (both Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia), in middle age. His thoughtful visage reflects the character of a man known to have been devoutly religious, as well as interested in science and music. As she alertly appraises the viewer, his visibly intelligent and warmhearted spouse gives a hint of a mischievous smile. Probably no other painter in the colonies at this time could so effectively have rendered a fleeting expression. Hesselius was apparently inactive as a painter after about 1750, perhaps entering retirement so his son could take over the business.

John Hesselius (1728–78), also a portrait painter, worked in the mid-Atlantic colonies and Virginia. Probably born in Philadelphia, he presumably trained with his father but was attracted to the up-to-date styles of Robert Feke and John Wollaston. John Hesselius's mature work displays smooth surfaces, clear colors, decorative embellishments, and sprightly animation, but his figures often seem woodenly posed, and he rarely approached Gustavus's ability to suggest the psychology of his sitters. Nevertheless, he attracted a stylish clientele, and more than a hundred of his portraits survive. Sometime around 1760 he moved to Maryland, where he subsequently resided in the vicinity of Annapolis. In 1763 he married a wealthy widow and settled on a large estate but continued occasionally to travel to paint portraits. Charles Calvert and His Servant (Baltimore Museum of Art, 1761) characterizes his strengths, although the juxtaposition of a five-year-old subject with a subserviently positioned, young black slave may jar contemporary sensibilities. Posed in the grand manner before an atmospheric landscape, young Calvert is a pretty child in van Dyck–style finery, including adroitly rendered feather plumes, laces, ribbons, and sumptuous fabrics. John Hesselius's late work sometimes shows increased realism in his approach to appearance and character.


Subjects: Art.

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