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 Gustavus Hesselius  (1682 - 1755)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania      Known for: portrait, religious, Indian figure

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A portrait painter who came from Sweden, Gustavus Hesselius was highly prominent in the Middle Colonies and in Philadelphia, where he was one of the first professional portraitists. He was also unique in that unlike most portrait painters of that era, he also did other subjects including religious, narrative and classical themes as well as coach and other decorative work.

His painting technique is not considered particularly strong by some art historians, but is valued as historically important because it included Indian Chiefs Tishcohan and Lapowinsa, paintings now in the Pennsylvania Historical Society. These portraits are some of the earliest likenesses of American Indians and were completed for John Penn to commemorate the signing of a treaty. Hesselius was also the first painter to introduce in America the late baroque style, popular in Europe, but it was not especially well received in the Colonies. An example is "Bacchanalian Revel", an orgiastic scene of the feast to Bacchus, god of wine, that was held every three years in classical Rome.

Hesselius came from a family of distinguished clergymen and took his art training in Europe. He emigrated to America in 1711, to follow his brother who was a minister in Christina, a settlement that was renamed Wilmington in Delaware. He remained there for a period of time, then moved to Philadelphia, back to Wilmington and settled in Prince Georges County, Maryland from about 1718 to 1733. Then he returned to Philadelphia, where he died in 1755.

One of his most significant commissions, now lost, was an altarpiece of the Last Supper painted in 1721-22 for the Saint Barnabas Church in Queen Anne's Parish. This painting was considered one of the most important religious works created in the American colonies. It was also a testament to the strong High Church traditions in Maryland. Hesselius's work represents the migration of a provincial European Baroque tradition to the colonies.

His son, John Hesselius, also became a well-known artist.


Sources include:
Matthew Baigell, "Dictionary of American Art"
Nancy Wall Moure and Donelson F. Hoopes, "American Narrative Painting"

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