Gustavus Hesselius

QUESTION: A portrait is an image of an identifiable individual and often attempts to convey as much of that individual’s identity as possible to the viewer. A portrait is an artist’s interpretation of what the artist feels are important traits to convey about the subject. In theory, self-portraits are a bit different in that they portray the artists’ own view of themselves.

Visit the following links to view portraits by the Swedish artist Gustavus Hesselius, who was active in New England during the first half of the eighteenth century:

* Gustavus Hesselius, Tishcohan, 1735
* Gustavus Hesselius, self-portrait, c. 1740

The first is an image of the Delaware Chief Tishcohan. The second is a self-portrait by Hesselius.

Because we don’t know much about either men, these images serve as important documentation of who they were. How would you describe these two men? How would you interpret the specific details, such as background, garments, lighting, and facial characteristics, found in each image? Are there substantial differences that distinguish the self-portrait from the portrait? Discuss the differences with reference to the two images. In your opinion, to what extent do cultural differences dictate the way in which artists represent themselves and other members of their community versus how they represent those who are considered outsiders?

Tishcohan  self-portrait
(Overcoming Nausea, 2011)

With no background and research about these images one must go off of visual cues left by the creator. In this case the Swedish artist Gustavus Hesselius left a handful of visual marks to help the viewer draw conclusions about each image. 
 These images show great contrast in the individuals. The first of Delaware Chief Tishcohan indicates he is an Indian by his skin tone, hair, clothing and accessories. The face also shows weathering and deep wrinkles’ indicating this individual spends a great amount of time outdoors in the sun. Also looking closer at the blue garment is not a typical stitched garment, but more of a wrap, which would be more common of that culture of people. This image also does not have anything in the background. It could be a visual cue to lead the viewer to connect the idea that this man does not have many possessions, and is more of a nomad. His social status is lower class and most defiantly poor. The shape of the body indicates that the figure is strong, but defiantly not wealthy as the figure is thin. The chief is also show to have a light source from straight on which makes him appear more flat, and simple, which is another great visual cue to indicate a commoner. 

The self-portrait of Gustavus Hesselius shows a great a contrast in social status, culture and class when compared to the image of the chief. His pale skin and a white wig were a traditional style of sophisticated gentlemen of this time period. His clothing, a white blouse with a dark over coat show that he has money and is at a higher status than a common laborer. He is also seated in a large chair at a desk, which could lead the viewer to believe he is educated and established in his career and not a common laborer. The lighting is displayed from the right. This gives more dimensions to the figure as the right side of the face is in highlight with the hand below and the left side is in shadow. With greater dimension a viewer may be lead to consider a more complex elite role this individual plays. 

The one common thread that both of these images has is that each one show a man that is not smiling. Both have a very serious facial expression, as the mouth in each piece is pulled tight across creating more of a frown. The chief, however, has a softer less arrogant look, as his eyebrows are both in a relaxed position. The self-portrait shows the right eyebrow raised. This could lead the viewer to assume the image portrays a sense of power, arrogance or superiority.  With these many visual cues the viewer can quickly gather information and make assumptions about each image, their status, and culture.

Works Cited:

AIO .American Art History | ART3010 UA.  Week One Assignment 2 – DQ2, Web.
5 April 2011.

"Overcoming Nausea." Common-place. Web. 05 Apr. 2011.