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Friday, March 9, 2012

Anna Henger Considers an Early History Painting by Gustavus Hesselius

Gustavus Hesselius’ Last Supper

In 1721 the Swedish born painter Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755)[1] was commissioned by St. Barnabas Church in Prince George’s County, Maryland to paint the first recorded religious painting in the colonies. This painting is not only the earliest known religious painting created in the colonies, it represents the earliest known public commission given to a colonial painter.
 In 1721 Hesselius was commissioned by St. Barnabas Church to paint an altar piece of the Last Supper. The painting was completed in a year and Hesselius was paid seventeen pounds upon delivery. The painting was believed destroyed when St. Barnabas burned to the ground in 1773 but was rediscovered in 1917 by Mr. C. H. Hart.[2] In 1921 The Last Supper was featured in an exhibition on early American paintings held at the Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. According to American Art News the Last Supper was the most interesting painting in the entire exhibit.[3]
Gustavus Hesselius was born in Sweden to a religious and intellectually minded family. In 1711 he traveled with his brother Andreas, who was a Lutheran pastor, to a Swedish colony in Wilmington, Delaware. Over the next forty years Hesselius traveled between Maryland and Philadelphia. He advertised in the “Philadelphia Packet” on December 11, 1740 as a painter of coats of arms on coaches, signs, landscapes, as a gilder, and a picture cleaner and mender.[4] There are some indications Benjamin West may have taken paintings lessons from Hesselius.[5] A painting of a monkey probably completed before Hesselius came to the colonies demonstrates his capabilities as a painter.[6] Hesselius’ paintings have been called “simple” and “realistic” and his figures have a slightly wooden quality, probably because of his unfamiliarity with human anatomy.



            Despite Gustave’s undeveloped style he was an ambitious painter. In the Last Supper he created an original composition inspired by an obscure old master painting. The painting is inspired by a fresco by Andrea del Sarto in the refectory of the Vallambrosan convent of San Salvi in Florence.[7] Hesselius amended Andrea del Sarto’s composition by placing John in front of the table, perhaps to give an illusion of further depth to the painting. He copied the paneling in del Sarto’s version but removed the arch and second story above the figures of Jesus and his apostles, most probably because he knew he did not have the knowledge of perspective to depict the complex architectural features in del Sarto’s version. Nor was this his only painting with a religious theme. In 1748 he exhibited in one of his home’s windows a painting of the crucifixion by his hand.[8] Given the painting’s unusual subject, and composition for its time and place of creation the Last Supper deserves a more thorough analysis by art historians and scholars of early American history.





[1] Roland E. Fleischer and Richard K. Doud. "Hesselius." In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T037942pg1 (accessed December 18, 2011).
[2] The Art News, Vol. 21, No. 24 (Mar. 24, 1923), pp. 1-12
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25591253, 5.
[3]American Art News , Vol. 15, No. 17 (Feb. 3, 1917), pp. 1-8
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25589006, 3.
[5] Rodgers, David. "West, Benjamin." In The Oxford Companion to Western Art, edited by Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e2765 (accessed December 18, 2011).
[6] The Favourite Monkey of Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) o/c, Gustavus Hesselius,
http://ezproxy.sothebysinstitute.com:2097/ImageView.aspx?result=4&balid=1616
[7] “Early American Paintings Exhibition” at the Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences
[8] Charles Henry Hart, “Gustavus Hesselius. The Earliest Painter and Organ-Builder in America.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 29, no. 2 (1905) pp. 129-133
 http://www.jstor.org/stable/20085274 accessed, December 17, 2011, 131.

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