Painter Carl Larsson’s Link to Waldenström

by Eloise Nelson

Hanging in our den is a print of a portrait of the renowned Swedish preacher Paul Peter Waldenström. This prized possession of ours came from a friend, Paul Carlson of Belfast, Maine, who found several of these prints while poking around in an antiquarian store in Stockholm’s Old Town many years ago. He later gave them to friends he knew would value them.

Carl Larsson, well-known national romantic artist and illustrator, painted the original in 1914, three years before Waldenström’s death in 1917 and five years before Carl Larsson’s own death in 1919. Larsson painted portraits for several other celebrities, including authors August Strindberg and Selma Lagerlöf.

We learned from our visit to the Larsson estate (Carl Larssongården) in Sundborn, Sweden, that the original painting was commissioned by a private collector. While visiting Stockholm last December, we stopped in at the Apollo Antique and Art shop, located near the Hotel Birger Jarl, owned and operated by the Mission Covenant Church. We had previously met the antique shop proprietor, Kerstin Larsson, who had told us she was from the Waldenström family. We certainly noticed a strong family resemblance.

The romantic-style painting depicts Waldenström with a faint smile on his face, wearing clergy attire, presiding over a large open Bible and a vase of flowers on the table (he reportedly objected to their inclusion in the painting). The original painting once graced the entryway of the manor house of Nådhammar to the south of Stockholm, where one of the Waldenström sons, Martin, lived along with P.P.’s wife Mathilda, who had come to live there following her husband’s death. The Waldenström grandchildren reportedly grew up thinking that P.W.’s unruly hair was a halo of sainthood, as it circles his head in such a symmetrical, stylized fashion.

Carl Larsson likely knew of Waldenström, a member of Parliament as well as a prominent theologian and editor of Pietisten, long before being asked to paint his portrait. A chapter in Larsson’s autobiography mentions his encounter with pietism. During a spiritual struggle, Larsson says that he “began to seek on the fundamentalist side what I did not find on the side of the state church.” He also came to know several revivalist preachers but “did not take them seriously for very long, despite their good intentions.” He eventually “gave up and left all religious conflicts behind me. But I did want to be blessed, and…sought my salvation in a pure way of life.”

The artist and P.P. Waldenström may have enjoyed some stimulating conversations during the portrait painting a few years before both died. We may never know. After Carl Larsson’s death, his wife Karin wrote that “his great loving heart never judged or condemned.”

Eloise V. Nelson formerly served as communications director for North Park College and Covenant Ministries of Benevolence. She serves on the board of the Swedish-American Historical Society and resides with her husband, LeRoy, in Northbrook, Ill.

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