Britain over the years have had many talented children’s book illustrators. There are the likes of Beatrix Potter with her illustrative work seen in books of Peter Rabbit and his Friends. There was Ernest Howard Shepard, an English artist and book illustrator, known especially for illustrations of the animal and soft toy characters in The Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh. Let us not forget Quinton Blake for his illustrations in the Roald Dahl books. There is Roger Hargreaves for his illustrations for his Mr Men and Little Miss books and Raymond Briggs for his unforgettable illustrations for his wordless picture book, The Snowman.
America has its share of great children’s book illustrators such as Maurice Sendak, an American illustrator and writer of children’s books. He became widely known for his book Where the Wild Things Are, first published in 1963. Sendak also wrote works such as In the Night Kitchen, Outside Over There, and illustrated many works by other authors including the Little Bear books by Else Holmelund Minarik. One of course calls to mind Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. His books and illustrations are loved by children and adults from all around the world, his books are quirky treasures that leave a lasting impression. He wrote his first children’s book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, in 1937, and the book that catapulted him into success, The Cat in the Hat, in 1957.
In today’s blog I am looking at the life and work of one of Sweden’s great illustrators, Jenny Eugenia Nyström, who was the first woman in Sweden to be awarded a royal medal for her historically themed painting. Her legacy was established by the popularity of her depictions of tomte, a mythological creature often associated with Christmas. Jenny Nyström’s artwork was modern as well as humorous. It was not unusual to see a “tomte” captaining an airplane, driving a car, a truck, a motorcycle or even a train. She was not afraid to use exotic animals like elephants and giraffes as “tomte” assistants for delivering Christmas presents across Sweden. The images also contained several elements of traditional folk Christmas imagery such as Christmas goats, Christmas trees, sleighs, toboggans and more.
Christmas card with jultomte by Jenny Nyström, (circa 1899)
Jenny Nyström was born in the Kalmar County district of Malmen, Sweden on June 13th 1854. She was the daughter of Daniel Isacsson Nyström, the cantor of the Kalmar Castle church, a local schoolteacher and an accomplished piano player who gave piano lessons. Jenny’s mother was Anette Eleonora Bergendahl. Jenny Nyström had three brothers, Emil, Leonard and Axel and one sister Augusta. She was the third of the five children, and reportedly was an energetic and imaginative youngster who later spoke about her happy and idyllic upbringing in Kalmar, a town in the southeast of Sweden. She had a happy home life living with her parents, siblings as well as her maternal grandparents, two maternal aunts and her maternal great grandmother. Her father attended to her education whilst her mother was remembered by her daughter for her storytelling.
Bear Reading Going Upstairs Godt Nytt Ar by Jenny Nyström (c.1910)
In November 1863, when Jenny was nine years old the family left Kalmar and moved to the Gothenburg suburb of Majorna where her father had a teaching post. Jenny was devastated to leave her Kalmar friends and wrote about her new home:
“…In the beginning, I found my stay in Gothenburg very boring, when I had no playmates, and when I got them, they just made life miserable for me, as they imitated my Kalmar dialect. I couldn’t speak clean. I often longed to go back to Kalmar and to my little playmates there and then to these nice windmills, in whose wings we hung, when it didn’t blow too hard, and after the outbuilding roof where we used to sit and sunbathe, and after grandpa’s old garden with the frog pond…”
Along with the family came the Nyström’s maid, Karin Johansdotter who would be part of Jenny’s “family” for many years. Up until this time Jenny had been home-schooled by her father but once in Gothenburg, she attended Mrs Natt och Dag’s local primary school and after graduating from there she attended the Kjellbergska flickskolan (Kjellberg Girls’ School), a school founded by a fund granted in the will of the wealthy merchant Jonas Kjellberg. The all-girls elementary school was to provide education to make it possible for females to support themselves professionally.
Tomte by Frederik Wohlfart
In 1869, aged fifteen Jenny received her first art education at the Göteborgs Musei-, Rit- och Målarskola, today known as Konsthögskolan Valand, where one of her tutors was Fredrik Wohlfart, a Swedish genre painter and caricaturist from the Düsseldorf School. Wohlfahrt was best known for a series of paintings depicting popular figures of elves and it was he who inspired Jenny to depict images of tomte, one of the most popular Scandinavian mythological characters. Christmas in Sweden is celebrated in a very unique and different manner, owing to the differences in its culture and traditions. Christmas celebrations there begin on St. Lucia Day, which is on December 13. Tomte comes into picture after the Christmas dinner, when someone from the family dresses up like him. Tomte, believed to live in the forests or in a farm, is known for looking after the livestock of the farmers after the Christmas dinner. Tomte was converted to the Swedish Santa Claus over a period of time and soon began to deliver gifts as well.
Harvest Joy by Jenny Nyström
One day, in 1871, seventeen-year-old Jenny Nyström was visiting the Gothenburg Art Museum and was sitting and drawing. Another visitor to the museum that day was regional governor Albert Ehrensvärd who noticed her sketching and admired her work, so much so, he invited her to Stockholm to visit art galleries and to go to the city’s National Art Museum. She accepted the offer and whilst in Stockholm she was introduced to Christoffer Boklund, professor at the Stockholm Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
Jenny Nyström illustrated Viktor Rydberg’s poem “Tomten” in Ny Illustrerad Tidning in 1881.
In August 1873, two years after her first visit to Stockholm she returned to the city and enrolled at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts and there she enjoyed life as an art student for the next eight years. Although Nyström had been brought up in a happy household it was not a rich upbringing and when she was at the Academy, she had to fund herself. To earn money, she would go out and sell subscriptions for the magazine, Ny Illustrerad Tidning, a publication for which she also provided illustrations. More importantly Jenny slowly built up a number of patrons from Gothenburg who bought her work, one of which was the regional governor Albert Ehrensvärd who guaranteed her the sum of 100 kroner a month.
Gustav Vasa inför king Hans (Gustav Vasa as Child in front of King Hans) by Jenny Nyström (1881)
Another of her patrons was James Dickson, a Scottish-Swedish merchant, industrialist, banker and philanthropist who was based in Gothenburg. She also received an annual stipend from the Academy from 1877 onwards. Nyström fared well at the Academy and in 1881, she received the highest commendation available: the royal gold medal for her historically themed painting Gustav Vasa inför king Hans (Gustav Vasa as Child in front of King Hans). The royal medal provided opportunities for scholarships abroad and success for the students. The motifs that were ranked highest were the biblical, mythological and historical last came folk life depictions, landscape painting and still lifes.
In July 1882, she was awarded one thousand Swedish Krona from the Academy’s special support fund and with this money she was able to travel to Paris. Paris being looked upon as the centre of the art world was very popular with foreign artists and many Swedish artists lived in Paris such as Carl Larsson, his wife Karin and Anders Zorn. Unable to gain entrance to the French Academy of Fine Arts due to its male-only policy, Jenny enrolled at the Académie Colarossi in November and then the Académie Julian. While in Paris, she painted diligently so as to have her work accepted by the Salon. In 1884 her painting From my Atelier in Paris was exhibited at that year’s Salon.
In 1884 she also completed 0ne of my favourite of her works, The Convalescent. Around the turn of the 20th century, convalescing women and girls were a popular theme in visual art. In her painting The Convalescent, Jenny Nyström has chosen to depict the subject from the narrative perspective of the classicist tradition. We see before us an idealised young female figure at centre of the work, hovering between life and death. In stark contrast, next to her, we see the shamelessly healthy-looking and pretty girl standing by her side. The invalid looks upwards, probably praying for good health and trusting her fate in God’s hands. The picture is full of overt symbols, like the dead potted plant set against the bouquet of living flowers. The compositional pattern, which is centred on the histrionic body language and facial expressions of the figures, has its roots in an older anecdotal tradition. In early 19th-century genre painting, we often see figures posing as they do here, as if being in a stage spotlight, creating a sense of distance. The image of a convalescing female became a symbol of subordination, of the fragility of “womanliness”, and hence proof of women’s inability to participate in public life. These pictures can be seen as a reaction to the emancipation of women at that time and an attempt to return them to the home and the private sphere.
In 1880, whilst still a student at the Academy she attended a student concert at Katarina Church in Stockholm. where she met her future husband, Daniel Stoopendaal. He was a medical student. In the Autumn of 1884, the couple got engaged. Jenny Nyström moved back to Stockholm at the start of the year in 1886 and worked as an illustrator for several different publishers. On May 24th 1887 she married Daniel Stoopendaal in the Adolf Fredrik church, and that autumn they moved into a large city apartment on Tegnérgatan. In 1889, a few years after her mother had died, Jenny Nyström’s father moved in with her and her husband. Their first child Curt was born on June 25th 1893. Sadly, Daniel was ill for most of his life with tuberculosis. He never completed his medical studies and Jenny was the breadwinner of the family supporting them through the sale of her paintings. It was a hard struggle for her to sell her work. In the end she had to sell her work to different publishers and other employers.
From the time her son Curt was born he often made an appearance in her paintings wearing a red skull-cap and dressed in a “kolt” (traditional outfit). She also painted a portrait of herself with two-year-old Curt in 1895, which she called Mor och son. Today it is known as Vi två (The Two of Us).
It was around this time that she began to concentrate on illustrating a large number of children’s books and historical novels. She also painted cover images for newspapers and journals. She had a breakthrough in 1911 when she signed a contract to make greeting cards for Axel Eliasson’s publishing house, but this meant that she needed to produce a certain number of watercolours each month as a background illustration for the cards. These illustrations gained great exposure due to the appealing nature of her drawings. The Swedish publication series Barnbiblioteket Saga, which was initiated by schoolteachers in the late 19th century was one of the most ambitious and extensive reading promotion projects ever undertaken in Sweden. It looked into the world of children’s books In Barnbiblioteket’s Saga, 1910, a biographical entry on Jenny Nyström reveals why she chose to illustrate children’s stories
“…The reason I mainly illustrate children’s books is probably because I have always loved children and have always wanted to show children something of the fair sunny land east of the sun and west of the moon, beauty which has remained in my memory from my childhood in Kalmar. Maybe now you can also understand why I prefer to draw beautiful images…”
Jenny Nyström carried on with her painting and illustrative work until the end. She died in her home in Stockholm on 17 January 1946 aged 91. Of her last minutes on this earth her long-time housekeeper described her passing as:
“…It was like blowing out a candle…”
Jenny Nyström was buried at Norra cemetery beside her husband Daniel Stoopendaal and her father Daniel Nyström. Seventy five years after her death her illustrated cards are still being printed and her academic artwork and her watercolours fetch high prices at the larger auction houses.