Carl August Tholander
The Fortunes of a Swedish/Russian Artist
by Anders Hallengren
translated by GF Dole
Thursday, December 12, 1999
Tsarina Maria Fjodorovna, the Danish princess who married Tsar Alexander III, was
delighted on the day of her coronation in 1881 with a picture, portraying a guardian
angel, presented to her by the noted Moscow portrait artist Carl August Tholander.
He had been one of the portrait artists for the Russian aristocracy and court. He had
painted the predecessor on the throne, Alexander II. He carried on Christian charitable
activity in Moscow. His warm religious spirit led him to both Freemasonry and
Swedenborgianism, to evangelical urban missions and the Young Men's Christian Association.
He had a strong leaning toward the unknown, the remote, and it was also surely something
of this interest that sent him on his travels. In his notes we find many thoughts about
"coincidences," presentiments, clairvoyance, and other remarkable phenomena he had
encountered during his life. But first and foremost it was portraiture, studying
characters and faces, that held the strongest human interest. He worked for a benevolent
society and for a society for Russian spiritual advancement. The humanitarian orientation
came to predominate. After thirty-eight years in Russia, he returned to Sweden in 1898 and
ended he days in the town where he had been born, Kristianstad, where he was reunited with
old New Church friends. As one of the last of the Kristianstad Swedenborgian circle, he
died in 1910. His will included a bequest to the New Church.
The name August Tholander no longer says very much. He had written an autobiography in
1881 in Moscow, with the thought that it would be published after his death. But with
fewer orders from the aristocracy, less well off after the peasant reform, and with
increasingly problematic conditions for foreigners and religious minorities, he returned
to Sweden. The manuscript eventually found its way to the Manuscript Section of the Royal
Library, where it has lain unpublished ever since. It is thanks to this manuscript that
glimpses of his remarkable life story can now come to light. It is a period piece where we
walk in the milieu of Shakhovskoi's and Mouravyov's era. But first and foremost it is a
journey to places and times here at home, where time has made the familiar strange.
The autobiographical manuscript is unfinished. It ultimately wound up in the hands of the
noted draftsman, art and culture researcher Nils Månsson Mandelgren (1813-1899), whose
collection on Swedish artists was presented to the Royal Library in 1893. This collection
included clippings, excerpts, written communications, and personal biographical sketches,
among others a folder wuth information and notes about Tholander. A memorandum of
Mandelgren reveals that he himself had serious thoughts about writing a biography with his
collection. This was to have been done while Tholander was still alive and living in
Moscow. He probably took the manuscript home with him on one of the many visits he made to
his homeland during that period. The material on Tholander is complemented by copies in
the Royal Library's section on maps and pictures and in the archives of the National
Museum, whose register, though by no means complete, still offers a large number of
examples of Tholander's work as a portrait artist in Sweden. Valuable biographical
informaion is found also listed in the Swedish Lexicon of Artists (Svenskt
Konstnärlexikon). Some source material, acquired from, among others, a nephew of the
artist, was published in Nya Kyrkans Tidning of 1910. The memorial there cited, which
rested on personal acquaintance, was inserted in Stockholm's Dagblad and written by Alfred
B. Nilsson, who later wrote about his friend Tholander in Idun in 1905, and summed up his
memories in Människor som jag mött (1912).
Tholander was born in "Christianstad" on July 16, 1829. His father was a gunner with the
Wendish artillery, but took command of it for a year for service in Landskrona. That is
the scene of his son's earliest childhood memory. It comes from when he was three or four
years old, when in his eagerness for a better look at the gunner Rosander's skilful
painting, he scrambled up onto a chair and fell down and hurt his head on an iron rim--a
fall which gave him trouble for a long time afterwards. But the memory is typical: it
shows his early fascination with the magic of brushstrokes.
At the age of twelve he had his first job. It was with the chorus of the Scone Dragoons.
"When I arrived at the regiment," he tells us, "I was so little I could almost walk right
under the horses." He had to tend, groom, and water his horse himself and keep his
weapons--saber and pistol--in order. In time, the little trumpeter discovered that he had
a gift both for the pistol and for the brush, and at shooting practice with a
target--representing a Russian soldier(!)--which he himself had painted for the company's
range, he proved himself the best marksman. When the regimental commander and supervisor
asked how he could shoot so well, the boy answered that he was good at "hitting on
likenesses." That would become his slogan. In a couple of years he was playing first
B-cornet, and in his teens he became a non-commissioned officer, that is, a sergeant. In
his parents' home, however, that was "permanent slavery" which "was by no means beneficial
for my moral development," according to his diary. His mother died in 1846 after many
years of pulmonary ailment, leaving her shaken son for his confirmation instruction under
a very critical and dogmatic dean who was struck dead by a bolt of lightning--an event
which gave August a great deal to think about. Under a new confirmation teacher, he found
his way to Christianity. He wrote a composition for him, and painted his first portrait.
Both of these set the tone for his life. In his confirmation candidate's meditation in
June, he used the word "correspondence" in a way that suggests that he had already begun
to find his way to Swedenborgian studies: "For youth's new union with the Lord to shine
forth on Whitsuntide is a lovely correspondence, for that is just the most glorious
agreement between the sweet springtime and the confident young human soul, which in its
innocent and clean attire, in flames of faith and love, is now consecrated as a bride to
Jesus, in blessed hope and joy." Deeply moved, he was struck with sadness and the loss of
his mother overcame him, and for a long time he drew her face from memory. His father was
astonished at the likeness. This was his son's first portrait, the beginning of his life
as an artist. Some time later, he remembers, "I began to draw for an artist named Lang,
later a bookseller in Christianstad. He was a Swedenborgian." We have information about
this artist and bookseller from another source. When Immanuel Tafel's Basic Doctrines of
the New Church or the Promised Jerusalem, together with an Explanation for the Members of
the New Church appeared in Swedish translation (Nya Församlingens eller Det utlofvade
Jerusalems Grundläror, jemte Förklaring ställd till Menskligheten af Nya Församlingen),
one could read on the title page, "Christianstad. Printed by Herman Lang 1859." When the
first volume of Swedenborg's principal work, Arcana Coelestia, appeared in Swedish in
1861, it was again Herman Lang who stood behind it. A year later he published A Brief
Exposition of the Doctrines of the New Church which is Meant in the Apocalypse by the New
Jerusalem. We can come this far simply through a glimpse of the Swedenborgian literature
of the time. Under the heading of "Biblical Prophecies of the New Jerusalem" in the Nya
Kyrkans Tidning of 1924, we also find in passing notes collected by the court notary F. G.
Lindh, who was then editor of the paper. As an introduction to an account of Herman Lang's
Biblical research, the reader is reminded that "in Kristianstad in the 1860s there was a
Swedenborg Society which financed and published translation of New Church writings. Dr. J.
A. Sevén, for example, translated the first sections of the Arcana and Divine Love and
Wisdom, and these were printed and sold by the owner of the Centerwall bookstore, the
printer Herman Lang. This Mr. Lang was a convinced follower of Swedenborg, and searched
diligently in the letter of the Word to find confirmations of the doctrines there. He kept
up a lively correspondence with the New Church folk of the time and had an extensive
circle of friends, who could not fail to notice what constituted the man's highest
interest in life." (Thus far concerning the name of the "Herman Lang" whom Emanuel
Swedenborg sought out with lively interest in Halle on March 3, 1734).
One member of Lang's circle, then, was his apprentice August Tholander, whom he was
teaching the use of the drawing pencil. Tholander noted in his memoirs, "On the table,
right where I had my work, lay some of Swedenborg's books. I glanced through them and was
utterly astonished at their contents; I asked my teacher to loan them to me, which he
granted. Their mystical stories about the spiritual world and their rational explanation
of the Bible engaged me in the liveliest fashion."
In his effort to get ahead in life, now as an artist, he was at this time penniless and
thought that all roads were closed to him. "I was totally without means. The good artist
Lang, in poverty himself, taught me gratis for the space of two years." By taking a loan,
however, August came to Stockholm and art school in 1847, where through an examination he
was one of ten who received an award from Prince Gustaf in 1848. He lived in a garrett on
the corner of Jakob's Alley and Jakob's Place, that is, in the neighborhood of
Swedenborg's birth and childhood. Immediately after his arrival in Stockholm, Tholander
also sought out "some prominent `friends of the New Doctrine' (Swedenborgians) such as
Beurling and the published Deleen." He also became acquainted with Anna Fredrika
Ehrenborg, "Aunt Anna." He visited with Beurling "almost every Sunday afternoon. He was
Sweden's most productive author along Swedenborgian lines and a kindhearted colleague."
Tholander painted the portraits of both him and Deleen. A portrait sketch of C. H.
Beurling when he was much older (1877) was the last portrait Tholander attached to his
autobiography. It was from their last meeting.
It was not completely safe to remain in Stockholm in 1848, the year of the revolution. In
the same house on Jakob's Place lived a member of Parliament whose window was bombarded
with paving stones. An older friend of Tholander, a Captain Levin, was killed by a bullet
through the chest when he, in company with Tholander, was at a battle between crowd of
people and a squadron of the Horse Guards at Storkyrkobrinken, and Tholander himself was
nearly knocked down and crushed. But life for an art student was still the ordinary
struggle to get food and pay the bills. In his memoirs, Tholander wrote of those days in
Stockholm, "I had the gift of hitting on likenesses, so I found plenty of work."
Photography had not yet found a foothold, and in Sweden, Finland, and later in Russia, he
would be able to make a living as a protrait artist. In 1849-50, he had the opportunity
for a fresh stay at the Konstakademi, at that time a classical school, where he had as his
teacher Pehr Krafft, son of the famous painter of the portrait of Swedenborg that hangs at
Gripsholm, and himself the son in law of Swedenborg's friend Carl Robsahm, who wrote the
sketch of Swedenborg's life. Professor Krafft had married Carl Robsahm's daughter. Brita
Sofia Krafft (née Robsahm) was herself a copyist well known in artistic circles.
Tholander says nothing about this in retrospect, but it is not unlikely that here too he
made a connection.
It was not only the revolution that upset things. Tholander himself eventually went back
between (perhaps after) academic terms of trial and crisis. During this interim time he
made his first excursion into the country as a portrait artist on his own and spent four
months in Carlshaven where he did a small water color portrait for six riksdalers. He
found some New Church activity in Carlshaven at the time, but Tholander's strong inner
experience seemed to be roused by events around him, which made him see more clearly. In
the weighty power of conscience, he saw "the complete spiritual reality." After his
studies at the Academy, thanks to a gathering at his old regiment, he found it advisable
to study at the art academy in Copenhagen. After that, we find him in Skone as a portrait
artist for the nobility (the Rosenkrantz, Ramel, De la Gardie, Wachtmeister, and Posse
families), and in Jönköping, where he came down with cholera in the epidemic that struck
Sweden in the 1850s. But he went to Gothenborg in 1854 and to Mariestad in 1855, and
throughout this period he was painting portraits, often in miniature form. He was also
writing, though--little pieces in verse and in prose in a Christian philosophical spirit.
In 1856, he published a little calendar with his meditations under the title Hvitsippan
(The Wood Anemone). The first spring flowers are a picture of hope and of rebirth. The
publication roused some interest, but the reviewer Sven Adikf Hedlund in Gothenborg's
Trade and Shipping Journal at first recognized in it nothing that was not a reflection of
Örsted, Swedenborg, and Atterbom. Eventually, Mr. Hedlund retracted this observation and
acknowledged his friend Tholander's originality, but the remark was certainly quite
The slender stranger to salons tells in one of his texts how a deep insight about the
essence of religion came over him when he had the opportunity to sit and gaze at the gleam
of a crystal chandelier. He saw the light breaking into the loveliest iridescence and
observed how every prism reflected
the clarity and color that corresponded to its direction. Was that not a clear picture of
the many nuances with which the light that streams from the heaven of the All-Wise finds
its way into human souls? . . . Among the shimmering prisms were a few that were
completely dark. They had become so because they had taken the light well, but there it
encountered a hostile, stifling, expiring darkness. How many souls have not lived in
darkness and desolation in the same way! The enemy of truth, selfishness, draws itself up
in battle against the heart's childlike faith and . . . the dark night of doubt settles in
. . . . But look--a slight puff of wind plays around the chandelier and brings the
darkened prisms back into a fresh and gleaming relationship to the light. So it often
needs no more than a puff of the eternal spirit to inspire a new and heavenly light in one
He knew this; he had experienced it. This two was an image of rebirth in his life.
He had an eye for beauty, and many things were transformed in his sight and in his hands.
One day, when he was visiting the old Berga church, he saw instantly that the massive,
dirt-covered altarpiece hid an incredible work of art. When he had cleaned it, everyone
could see that it was an original work of Anthony van Dyck, brought back to Sweden during
the Thirty Years' War. When this became known, the altarpiece was redeemed by the state
and replaced by a copy. His restoration was so successful that the church lost its
"For the success I had in all my ventures," he wrote in his autobiography, "I gradually
forgot completely the good giver. I had been lulled into spiritual sleep by the vast
world's hustle and bustle, but `Israel's keeper, who neither slumbers nor sleeps,' sent
me, in his grace, a powerful arousing, completely in accord with his assurance in Job
33:22-29." He had a remarkable near-death experience, which he himself called the process
of crossing over, and he experienced the fact that "our so-called death" is a birth, and
he also saw a correspondence between the states of birth and death. He found some of
"God's holiest truths " confirmed for him, and he thought that perhaps a few of us could
explain everything about the similarity between birth and death, "Christ's words in John 3
were the best essay on the subject." Be born anew in order to enter God's kingdom. For
him, this was suddenly "the sweetest spring morning."
There is a spiritual presence in his paintings, in the work "The Return of the Prodigal
Son" (1857), executed in Düsseldorf and sent to a church in his home town, and in the
altarpiece "Christ in Gethsemane," painted for the church of Villnä in the region of Abo,
his home district for two years while he was in charge of the drawing school of the
Finnish art association at the close of the decade.
The most important conclusion Tholander drew from his spiritual "process of crossing over"
in the 1850s was a moral confirmation of the vast memory we ourselves generate within
ourselves as though on a photographic plate. "'Where the tree falls, there will it lie.'
Whatever the direction of our spiritual state may be at the passage of death, that will be
our destiny for eternity. Our deeds follow after us."
But he was also assured of divine guidance, and when he became acquainted with people in
Abo who had contacts in Russia, he set off on a search for new realms of activity: "on the
way toward an unknown fate I was calm, trusting myself to God's providence." His memoirs
testify to nothing but fatigue on the journey, with baggage and money disappearing, and
one got lost without knowing a word of Russian. But on the 600-verst long Nikolai-track,
one traveled along in the twilight past the station where Anna Karenina, in Tolstoy's
novel from that period, threw herself in front of the train. In Moscow, Tholander got a
room in a corner house near the Kremlin. He lived with the Finnish wholesaler Tallgren.
The year was 1861, and the land reform and the freeing of the serfs was the subject of
discussion for days. The Shakovskoi family and other Swedenborgian friends in Moscow were
deeply touched. As a commentary on the times, but also summing up his own situation, he
jotted down an addition to his meditation on the crystal chandelier--that one band is
loosened by another band in the inflowing light"
The manifest light in Christ has freed you from the law of slavery and brought you into
servitude to love.
On Christmas Eve his Finnish friends gathered, many of them in the military, at the home
of the commissioner of the Russian corps of grenadiers, General Anders Ramsay (1799-1877),
later a member of the Russian national council. Ramsay's brothers, celebrated in song by
Geijer and Runeberg (in "The Stranger's View"), were his first cousins. Indicative of the
temper of the times and milieu, the conversation turned to clairvoyance and prophetic
dreams. Tholander asked the general about the Ramsay brothers' dad. He wondered how it had
happened with the general's uncle Otto Wilhelm Ramsay's remarkable state, "namely that he
had once fallen into a magnetic sleep in which he saw and related what was happening many
miles away." In response, the Moscow commissioner explained that "this characteristic runs
in our family," and told of similar experiences that he himself had had in Russia.
Tholander and the general became close friends. That involved painting not only his
portrait, but also his wife's. This soon led to his painting the portrait of Moscow's
Governor-general Tudskov, and when the portrait was finished he ordered a copy. When
Tudskov disappeared from the picture, he painted his successor, Governor-general
Afrosonimov. "During my first three years in Moscow, I painted a good many portraits, the
largest and best remunerated--with 300 rubles--was a three-quarter length portrait of a
Mrs. Terletzki." Thereby Tholander confirms in his memoirs the reports of William Mather
and Jonathan Bayley from that time concerning the significantly worsened circumstances of
the Russian aristocracy. One of the century's inventions also entered the scene as a
competitor to the artist: "Little by little, the consequences of the emancipation of the
serfs (1861) showed themselves. The aristocracy had to `reduce their establishments.'
Photography also took a brisk step forward, so that I had to look for other sources, and
found things like giving lectures on drawing and painting." As fascinated as everyone else
by photographic pictures, he could assert that an artist's lifelong profession like his
own was on the way out with the times.
Throughout this period, Bible reading gave many of his contacts a religious flavor, and
confrontations were not lacking even though Tholander himself seems to have been quite
humble and mainly oriented toward good works. On event exemplifies this. A daughter of the
recently deceased Admiral Adrianov sought him out. Her brother had fallen in the Crimean
war. She herself was preparing to enter a convent, and went around clothed in black with a
kerchief over her head. Tholander was happy to convince her of another course of action
and gave her a New Testament in Russian, which she took to read for the first time, "and
thereafter her saint's candle went out." But later he was threatened both with a knife and
with a complaint before the police and the Metropolitan for having a great deal of magic
and supersition in his surroundings--for carrying water around the altar to the right for
a toothache, etc.--he held fast to the Gospel. He was even robbed of a large part of his
possessions. This was published in the police gazette. Ironically enough, it was in the
Liubianka that he took refuge "to a pair of excellent rooms--and happy I was to escape
three years of purgatory." He began over again. His new life had three ingredients. He
continued to paint, first with his warm colleague Dobniek and his family. He painted Tsar
Ivan the Terrible in a Palm Sunday procession, and a prince's wedding with hundreds of
people. Another dimension of his activity was teaching. In 1866, he was offered by General
Superintendant Dickhoff, rector of the German association, the post of drawing master at
the association's girls' school. This school grew rapidly, and in 1883 had seven classes
in addition to many preparatory and parallel classes in the university preparatory
department. The older section of school buildings, which had once been owned by Mazepa,
leader of the Cossacks in the war against Charles XII and a Carolingian during the Russian
campaign, Tholander decorated with a portrait of Tsar Alexander II and his consort Maria
Alexandrovna in full length. The reform-minded Tsar had won his heart.
The third side of his contribution was the Christian or humanitarian one. Tholander was
zealously active in community and philanthropic works in his section of the city. The
world league of the YMCA had been founded in 1855, and in 1876 we find Tholander as
founder of the first YMCA in Moscow. His friend Alfred B. Nilsson tells us, "It was a bold
undertaking, Tholander declared, to start such an association at this time, when nihilism
was flourishing at its worst, and consequently police activity was stretched to the limit
and its Argus eyes were watching over all gatherings." For three years people were in
constant flight from one place to another to evade the inquiries of the Russian
authorities until the association's rules won official approval.
A little book named Honest Sketches was published in Moscow in 1886. It was written in
German, since it had been like that in the city since the 1700s: the people who could read
often understood both German and French. There was also a German population in Moscow.
The author's name was the pseudonym T...r, which one would often find at that time in
travelogues in the Ny Illustrerad Tidning (New Illustrated News), Nya Dagligt Allenanda
(New Daily Variety), Christianstadbladet (The Christianstad Paper), and St. Petersburg's
German Sonntagsblatt (Sunday Paper). This book, Ernste Federzeichnungen, was an expanded
and revised verson of Vitsippan (The Wood Anemone). On the dust jacket, one could read
that all the the proceeds of the book were assigned to a nursing home for workers which
the city mission in Moscow was establishing. In close contact with the German colony in
Moscow (about 20,000 people), for whose Protestant church he worked, he had with time
drifted away from Swedenborgianism, according to his memoirs. The strong current of
superstition in Moscow had also pushed him in a more high-church direction. "I was no
longer a follower of Swedenborg," he wrote in connection with his sixth friendly meeting
with Beurling in the 1870s--a definite confirmation that he really was one. Grace and
justification by faith had taken on special meaning for him. But in fact, dogmas were
never anything that took first place. In his opinion, theology itself was not enthroned in
the highest place. God is love. The direction of his life remained constant--to do good,
with emphasis on the fact that "our deeds follow after us." That was the most important
thing, even when he was drafting his memoirs. The promise of The Wood Anemone was the
gospel of the Honest Sketches. The varied refractions of light simply stood out so much
more clearly for him that everything had its unique value, even every individual and every
faith. There is an abundance of unique prisms, he thought constantly, but the light is
always the same. He saw the many shifts in which the inflowing light refracted itself in
people's souls. "Does not each individual basically have his own religion?"
But returning home seems not to have been much of a step. He resigned, with pension, from
his teaching post in Moscow after thirty-two years in the role of instructor to
artistically-minded women of society. Safely home in Sweden again, he joined his circle of
Swedenborgian friends. He settled down in the city where he had been born until 1899,
where he lived out the last ten years of his life. As was the case for his artist friend
Alfred Wahlberg, the New Church influences were revived in his elder days. In his obituary
in the Nya Kyrkans Tidning, the New Church pastor C. J. N. Manby wrote that "even in the
summers" people visited their "friend Tholander in Christianstad" and "found proof of his
interest in the New Church." Two letters had come from a nephew of the deceased. The
watchmaker G. Tholander wrote about his uncle,
He died on the nineteenth, at four in the morning, after two months's illness. He passing
happened very quietly. . . . I am sure that my dear uncle had one prayer to our Lord
throughout his whole illness; many times we heard him exclaim, "God is love" . . .
According to my uncle's will, among other bequests he left a thousand kronor to the New
Church temple fund.
As editor, Manby also quoted another letter which had just arrived. "Among the things that
have come to us lately concerning the efforts of the deceased to earn his living are some
expressive lines from a letter of October 20. After his introduction, the writer says,
Some years ago I became acquainted with the teachings of the New Church through the
beloved artist A. Tholander, who after two month's illness . . . was granted his release.
The Lord be praised for what this winsome man accomplished through the dissemination of
the Writings and through personal contacts."
Manby added that also "The sales department of the New Church Publishing House had
experienced his zeal for `dissemination of the Writings.'"
Many people honored the departed. New Church friends in Stockholm, the Lutheran Missionary
Union, the Y.M.C.A., with many of the Regimental musicians played for their friend, who
had once been the little trumpeter.
The Swedish court also paid tribute to Tholander. He was a knight of the Vasa order and
recipient of the medal Illis quorum meruere labores ("To those whose labors are
deserving"). The name comes from a line by the Roman poet Propertius which reads in its
entirety, "May the rewards come to those whos deeds have earned them."