Swedish painter Ernst Josephson, born to a respected Jewish family in Stockholm, was an extremely talented artist who lived in the last half of the 19th century. He mainly painted portraits and scenes of daily life of the middle class and peasant folks while studying art in Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy and France. He wrote several poems which were published as two collections, Black Roses, in 1888 and Yellow Roses, in 1896.
Sadly, he was subjected to mental illness brought on by syphilis while he was very young, and although it did not affect his talent, it altered his presentations on canvas. He first experienced a hallucination in 1871, around the age of 20 years old, which was very real to him: he saw a beautiful water sprite (a Näcken, based on Swedish folk lore) while he was out on a nature hike. He came home from the walk, declaring, “I will be Sweden’s Rembrandt or die!” He was also supposed to have said, strangely, in addition, “One can admire many beautiful women, but one can only love one of them, and that one is Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn!” He suffered a very serious religious delusion while in Brittany in 1887, where he told a little girl that he wanted to sacrifice her, as if he were Abraham, and she were Isaac, because God told him to.
He was quickly deported back to Sweden and placed in a hospital. Josephson was diagnosed in an Uppsala hospital as having schizophrenia. Even while institutionalized he continued to paint, although it is said that he was not often aware of what was going on around him. His early paintings were very colorful, before his illness worsened, and like David and Saul (1878), they showed his deep-rooted connection to his Jewish heritage. He made many of the Näcken, with some as taller than 7’ high. His later paintings seemed to be dark forebodings of his future, with elements of creepiness, like Spanish Blacksmiths, and his portraits of himself and others emanated feelings of a tortured psyche. One of his drawings, a twisted version of his David and Saul painting, has been likened to Egon Schiele's nightmarish artworks.
Josephson created a darkly emotional painting called Strömkarlen, (also called Der Nix, or The Nothing, 1884) which is considered his masterpiece, because it has been a direct influence on the following generations of Scandinavian artists. It was originally rejected by the Swedish National Museum and bought instead by the Duke of Närke, who was very angry at their rejection of the painting. Josephson is often compared with Vincent van Gogh, Mikhail Vrubel, Richard Dadd and his countryman, Edvard Munch, due to the similarities in their lives and illnesses. His art work, despite his mental state, still ranks him as a great modernist of his time, with the same high status as Vincent van Gogh.
During different periods, when his mind was not so twisted by the syphilis, Josephson created some beautiful pictures, such as his 1883 scene of Jeanette Rubenson, a Jewish woman in her home, knitting. The detail of the entire room, and the scene outside the open window are intriguing, but the eyes always come back to the central subject of the sitting woman. Another such surprisingly realistic and detailed portrait which he made in 1883 was of Pontus Fürstenberg, a Swedish Jew who was an art dealer.
Josephson lived for almost two decades after being diagnosed with his mental disorder, but always under supervised care. He remained in touch with his family, and was always mindful of his Jewish heritage within his art themes and genre paintings. His final production was made in 1906, shortly before he died. It was a portrait of his Uncle Ludvig who was a theatre director; Josephson’s powerful depiction of his uncle as posed on canvas has been likened to Michelangelo’s iconic statue of Moses.