Gustavus Hesselius

(American born Sweden, 1682 - 1755)

Gustavus Hesselius was born in Falun, Sweden, in 1682, into a family with strong ties to the Lutheran church. His father, four of his five brothers, and a paternal uncle were all clergymen, while five of his seven sisters became wives of clergymen. He received his training as an artist and craftsman in Europe, and in 1711, when his clergyman brother Andreas was appointed pastor to the Swedish community on the Delaware, Gustavus accompanied him on the voyage. Following a two-month stopover in London, they sailed for America, arriving finally at Christina (later Wilmington) in early May 1712. After a few weeks, Gustavus traveled to Philadelphia, a rapidly growing town that could provide him with steady patronage. Except for a period of years in the 1720s, when he lived and worked in Maryland, Hesselius made his principal residence in Philadelphia. Hesselius was one of the first professionally trained European painters to settle in America, and he introduced into the English colonies both a greater skill and certain elements of the Baroque style of painting then current in Europe. No signed painting by Hesselius is recorded, and only about twenty-five works have been firmly attributed to him. He was perhaps the first painter in the English colonies to paint classical subjects, while two altarpieces he produced made him perhaps the first painter in those same colonies to receive a public commission. Although portrait painting seems to have been his favorite occupation, he was prepared to accept a variety of projects, and he is known to have painted and decorated the interiors of churches, public buildings, and country estates. Reference: Roland E. Fleisher, Gustavus Hesselius: Face Painter to the Middle Colonies [Exh. cat., New Jersey State Museum] (Trenton, 1988).