The Case of the Mysterious Disappearing—and Reappearing—Medal

Glencairn Museum News | Number 10, 2011

 

Portrait of Emanuel Swedenborg By Carl Fredrik von Breda

 

Knowledge of this early and important oil-on-canvas portrait of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) has faded into obscurity over the years. For a long time it could be seen hanging in one of the buildings on the Academy of the New Church campus. (The Academy, founded in 1877, is an educational institution in Bryn Athyn based on Swedenborg’s theological writings.) Unfortunately, at some point the entire surface of the portrait was drenched in water, the result of a leak from above. Moisture caused the exterior layer of varnish to blanch, obscuring the paint layer with a white coating and preventing an exact assessment of its condition. To all appearances, the painting was damaged beyond repair.

Interest in the painting was reawakened in 2003 when a 19th-century copy of the von Breda portrait was donated to the Glendale New Church in Ohio. Then, in the fall of 2005, the Academy’s painting was taken to an expert conservator for a preliminary examination. Our hope was that the painting would “clean up well”—perhaps even well enough to be placed back on public view—and that we would learn more about its history in the process.

 

Artist's Signature and Date | When the damaged varnish was removed, the artist’s signature, date, and inscription became visible on the left side of the painting: “Post obitum pingebat 1817 C.F. v. Breda” (i.e. “Painted after death 1817 Carl Fredrik von Breda”).

 

We were not disappointed on either count. As it turned out, nearly all of the damage had been to the exterior varnish, and not to the paint beneath. Once the varnish was removed, an intact oil painting emerged with rich colors and a level of detail we had never expected. An artist’s signature, date, and inscription became clearly visible on the left side of the painting: “Post obitum pingebat 1817 C.F. v. Breda” (i.e. “Painted after death 1817 Carl Fredrik von Breda”). Other details that were uncovered when the damaged varnish was removed include the names of several books written by Swedenborg in the background and a dusting of white wig powder on his right shoulder.

 

Books by Emanuel Swedenborg | After cleaning, the names of several books written by Swedenborg became visible in the background.

 

However, the conservation of this painting has also raised several baffling questions. The conservator had suggested that certain areas of repainting be removed from the surface. When this was done, three of the buttons on Swedenborg’s blue coat disappeared, and a special insignia, the Order of the Polar Star (Nordstjärneordern), appeared on his chest! Why was the Order of the Polar Star, an important feature present in von Breda’s original portrait, later painted over? And how did it happen that von Breda produced a portrait of Swedenborg in the first place?

Carl Fredrik von Breda (1759–1818) was a Swedish painter who studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in the late 1700s, specializing in portrait painting. Exactly how he came to paint Swedenborg (forty-five years after the theologian’s death, and one year before his own) is not known. The Swedish Portrait Archives in Stockholm can find no record of the Bryn Athyn portrait, and it was not included in Emil Hultmark’s definitive book about the artist published in Stockholm in 1915 (Carl Fredrik von Breda: Sein Leben un sein Schaffen). Most likely the painting was brought to America within two or three decades of its completion. The earliest record found so far of the von Breda portrait as belonging to the Academy of the New Church dates to 1969.

 

Order of the Polar Star | After removing an area of repainting, a special insignia, the Order of the Polar Star (Nordstjärneordern), appeared on Swedenborg’s chest.

 
 

And what about the mysterious “painting out” of the Order of the Polar Star, now once again clearly visible on Swedenborg’s blue coat? There is no doubt that the insignia shown on the von Breda portrait (a silver Maltese Cross with a five-pointed star in the center) is the Order of the Polar Star. The King of Sweden himself awarded this order to recipients for “civic merits, for devotion to duty, for science, literary, learned and useful works and for new and beneficial institutions.”

However, according to the Office of Orders (Ordenskanslit) at the Swedish Royal Court, there is no evidence that Swedenborg ever received the Order of the Polar Star. Perhaps the insignia was painted over after this was discovered. It may never be known why von Breda depicted Swedenborg with this insignia in the first place, but it may be significant that an earlier portrait said to represent Swedenborg, by the Swedish painter Lorentz Pasch the Elder (1702–1766), displays the same mistake.

Carl Fredrik von Breda’s portrait of Swedenborg will be on exhibit in Glencairn’s Upper Hall through the end of 2011. Admission to the Upper Hall and the rest of the first floor is FREE every Saturday afternoon. Stop by and see this fascinating painting!