By Candace Roberts
The leading artist in the mid-Atlantic colonies during the first half of the eighteenth century, in 1712 Gustavus Hesselius 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.
Born in Falun, Sweden, Hesselius lived in also Folkarna and Uppsala before spending several months in London on his way to America. 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.
According to burial records, Gustavus Hesselius died the 23rd of May 1755 and was buried on the 25th at Gloria Dei Church, aged 73 years.