Pehr Hilleström

(Väddö, Roslagen 1732 - 1816 Stockholm)

The forge

55.6 x 45.2 cm. (21 7/8 x 17 3/4 in.)
oil on canvas


Private collection; sale, Sotheby’s, London, 2 May 2018, lot 196, when acquired by the present owner.

Catalogue Entry

Pehr Hilleström was one of the most regarded and versatile Swedish painters of the eighteenth century. Born in the island of Väddö in 1732, he took up the study of painting under landscape artist Johan Philip Korn (1727-1796), and later trained with French-born painter Guillaume Taraval (1701–1750) and architect Jean Eric Rehn (1717–1793) at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. During a trip to France between 1757 and 1758, Hilleström encountered the work of Boucher and Chardin, and furthered his education in weaving, opening a tapestry workshop in Stockholm in 1759. During the 1770s, he progressively devoted himself to painting, being appointed court painter in 1776 by Gustavus III, King of Sweden. In addition to depicting the king’s land properties, aristocrats’ life at court and official ceremonies, Hilleström portrayed the entire spectrum of Swedish society during the Gustavian era. Among his works are scenes of bourgeoise everyday life, intimate domestic interiors, theatre scenes and depictions of peasant culture. Hilleström became particularly famous for his night scenes of burning cottages and townscapes, and was a pioneer in depicting realistic working scenes, often set within mines and forges, as exemplified by the present work.1

Fig. 1. Lèonard Defrance, Interior of a foundry, oil on panel, 42 x 59 cm., Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Fig. 2. Joseph Wright of Derby, Iron Forge Viewed from Without, oil on canvas, 105 x 140 cm., 1773, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.












In this small canvas, the viewer is invited to look into a furnace-lit interior of a smithy through an open wooden door. On the left, a young blacksmith with his back to the viewer is at work, captured while holding a glowing piece of metal at a forge with a pair of tongs. With his raised left arm he activates a blower to increase the temperature of metal through a blast of air. To the man’s right, another blacksmith wearing a red cap is depicted in three-quarter view while at rest, his head turned in profile. A third worker with a hat appears nearby, sitting on a wooden stool and holding an empty tankard as he look upwards to the right, outside the canvas. Forging equipment is scattered across the foreground. An anvil stands on a wood base at the centre of the composition and a series of tongs hangs from the forge. Metal’s sparks, the only source of light in the painting, fly upwards, illuminating the scene and creating an effect of intense chiaroscuro. The artist’s signature appears on the lower right of the painting.

Fig. 3. Hubert Robert, L’Incendie de Rome, 75.5 x 93 cm., c. 1771, Musée d’art moderne Andre Malraux, Le Havre. © MuMa Le Havre / Florian Kleinefenn

Scenes of industrial subject matter were not uncommon in Northern Europe during the eighteenth century. Dating back to the previous century, they first appeared in the Netherlands and later spread across Belgium, England and France. Examples of forges can be found, for example, in the production of Lèonard Defrance (1735-1805), a Belgian painter active in the iron-producing city of Liège in Belgium. Following in the footsteps of a tradition inaugurated by Jean Baptiste and Louis-Bernard Coclers, paintings by Defrance show interiors of foundries, which share similarities with those painted by Hilleström in terms of both subject matter and dramatic use of chiaroscuro (Fig. 1). Hilleström’s use of light in works alike The forge also bears similarities with paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, who often painted scenographically illuminated industrial sites (Fig. 2), as well as by French masters, such as Hubert Robert (Fig. 3). Although Hilleström’s direct knowledge of these artists remains a hypothesis, thematic and visual similarities suggest that that he was certainly aware of these continental traditions of painting, which he probably encountered during his stay in France or in Swedish collections.2

Fig. 4. Pehr Hilleström, Copper Foundry at the Falun Mine, oil on canvas, 79 x 65.5 cm., 1782, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

The present work can be further understood in the light of Swedish mid-eighteenth-century socio-economic environment. At the time, Sweden saw a rapid growth of manufacturing enterprises and, particularly, ironworking. By the last decades of the century, ironworks had become the cornerstone of Swedish economy, with iron being the country’s most important export commodity.3 The commercial interests of industrial families such as the DeGeer, Grill, af Ugglas, Tham and Jennings were combined with a passion for science and art nurtured by Enlightment ideals. The economic power of such families allowed them to commission the most important Swedish contemporary artists, including Hilleström himself, with depictions of their industrial estates. After visiting the Falun Coppermine (Fig. 4), Hilleström made the mining and metal-founding industries one of his main subjects,4 working for the most powerful industrial families in Sweden. For Adolf Ulrik Grill, for example, he executed a monumental depiction of the anchor-forge at Söderfors, today at the Stockholm Nationalmuseum (Fig. 5).5 With all this considered, the present work might at first be thought to be the result of a commission of one of these new, illuminated patrons.

Fig. 5. Pehr Hilleström, In the Anchor-Forge at Söderfors. The Smiths Hard at Work, oil on canvas, 137 x 185 cm., 1782, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

A consideration on the dimensions of the present canvas suggests a more plausible hypothesis. On the right of the aforementioned painting from the Nationalmuseum, is a group of elegantly dressed people entering the furnace, another figure with his back to the viewer inviting them to take a look. The painting attests the rise of upper-class tourism. This phenomenon was fostered by the numerous descriptions of mines and forges found in contemporary travel books, which encouraged those who could afford it to visit the provincial iron-making estates to discover the latest in technological marvels. Hilleström often produced small paintings under no specific commission,6 selling them to visitors as travel souvenirs. The forge can be closely compared to other paintings of similar size, which were probably executed for sale for the free market. The hanging tongs, anvil and wood wheel, as well as the motif of the open door introducing the viewer into the scene reappear almost identical in other paintings today in private collections (Fig. 6, 7 and 8).

In comparison to paintings commissioned by industrial families, works originally conceived for the open market do not focus on the grandeur of industrial sites and do not aim at celebrating industrial progress. They lack any mythological or psychological complexity, but are instead intimate, almost private scenes where only a few figures of men at work appear, completely unaware of their audience. These images present an edulcorated conception of labour, deriving from an optimistic view of industry, which was not only distinctive of Hilleström’s beliefs, but of those of Northern European society at the gates of the Industrial revolution.

Fig. 6. Pehr Hilleström, Interior of a forge with a man at work, oil on canvas, 51 x 41 cm., 1788, Private collection.

Fig. 7. Pehr Hilleström, Interior of a forge, oil on canvas, 56 x 45.5 cm., Private collection.

Fig. 8. Pehr Hilleström, Interior of a forge with three men at work, oil on canvas, 50 x 40.5 cm., 1781, Private collection.


1 For a complete publication on Pehr Hilleström’s oeuvre, see G. Cederblom, Pehr Hilleström som kulturskildrare. 1-2, (Uppsala: 1927-1929).

2 M. Ablund, “Joseph Wright of Derby in a northern light. Swedish comparisons and connections. Pehr Hilleström & Elias Martin,” in The British Art Journal, Vol. XI, no. 1, pp. 39-40.

3 For a detailed study, see K.-G. Hildebrand, “Foreign markets for Swedish iron in the 18th century,” in Scandinavian Economic History Review, 6:1, pp. 3-52.

4 J. L. Paxton and F. Fairfield, Calendar of Creative Man, (London and Basingstoke: The Macmillann Press ltd, 1980), p. 293.

5 Ablund, “Joseph Wright of Derby”, pp. 37-38.

6 Ibid., 38.
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The painting is unlined. The paint surface is clean, and the varnish is clear and even. The original impasto paintwork is well-preserved, particularly in the flames and sparks of the fire. Inspection under ultraviolet light reveals an area of retouching in the dark background of the upper right corner, measuring approximately 3 x 3 cm. However, the painting appears otherwise untouched and is in overall good, original condition.