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“Mermaids and Swans:” Another Missing Frida Hansen Tapestry

The rediscovery of Frida Hansen’s monumental 1903 tapestry, Southward (Sørover), was an amazing find. When it is exhibited and for sale by Peter Pap at the Winter Show in New York City from April 1-10, 2022, it will be the first public opportunity to see this magnificent tapestry in 91 years.

Read about the rediscovery of Southward, about its cleaning, and about Frida Hansen in the new issue of the Norwegian Textile Letter. Photo: Peter Pap (Note: this is before cleaning.) (11’3” x 10’3”)

It wasn’t the first time Hansen wove swans swimming in fan-shaped waves. Ten years before Southward was finished and whisked off to America by Berthea Aske Bergh, Hansen wove Mermaids and Swans (Havfruer og svaner, 1893). This first mermaid tapestry traveled to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago where it was exhibited in the Woman’s Building.* According to a contemporary newspaper account and the Norwegian Biographical Encyclopedia of 1931 (Norsk Biografisk Leksikon), it was then sold to a Californian. And it is missing!

Mermaids and Swans (Havfruer og svaner), 1893. 250 x 350 cm. (8.1′ x 11.4′) The swans and the waves are so similar to those in Southward.

The critic Henrik Grosch, who was also on the board of the Norwegian Home Craft Association (Husflid), wrote about the tapestry in an Oslo newspaper, Aftenposten, on January 27, 1893. Hansen’s biographer, Anniken Thue, described his analysis.

Here he praised Frida Hansen as “an artistic power, the like of which our land rarely possesses in this area, “ and he further said that she had given traditional patterns a new and often undreamed of beauty on account of her boldness in choice of colors.  In regard to the Swan tapestry he acknowledged that she had been inventive and not just imitative in her work.  “Her poetic nature had to express itself in original compositions, where she rightly had opportunity to reveal her fine sense of nature and her artistic sensibility.”  He had a few cautious objections to her mingling “naturalistic and symbolic motifs,” but in the end he found the tapestry was so beautiful that it was evidence of an exceptional, daring and original imagination.  As to its workmanship, he called it a masterpiece.

Thue, Anniken. Frida Hansen: En europeer I norsk tekstilkunst omkring 1900. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget,1986. Translation by Lisa Torvik.

When the Norwegian Home Craft Association (Husflid) decided to exhibit Norwegian women’s work in the Woman’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, Frida Hansen was chosen to design and weave the tapestries. Most were in traditional Norwegian geometric designs, but Mermaids and Swans and The Wild Flying Ducks (1892) were exceptions. In these tapestries Hansen added naturalistic elements in a way that built on, yet moved beyond, traditional Norwegian weaving. Hansen was not trying to imitate a painting in her weaving; she was creating her own form, with stylized motifs that were suited to the medium of weaving.

In a 2015 essay, Vidar Halén noted international influences as well as Norwegian.

Mermaids and Swans has an ornamental border of water lilies and mermaids, while the main motif shows three simplified swans on a stylized water surface, as the Japanese have often depicted. The mermaid theme that is repeated in several of Hansen’s works may also have been inspired by Crane’s and Burne-Jones’ many mermaid motifs and perhaps especially the famous Mermaid wallpaper from 1880, which Burne-Jones and Morris had drawn together. Here the mermaid is seen surrounded by stylized flowers as in Hansen’s tapestry.

Widar Halén. “Frida Hansen og japanismen.” 2015. Published online in the Journal of Contemporary Art Stavanger. 

It’s interesting to compare the two swimming swan motifs. The swans are very similar, but the swans in Southward seem more detailed and graceful.

The borders in the earlier piece are firmly geometric. The borders of Southward are intricate and flowing. Are they images of watery flotsam? A horseshoe crab, perhaps, or coral?

The 1890s were a crucial period in Frida Hansen’s development as an artist, as she moved increasingly towards her mature, elegant art nouveau style. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the 1893 Mermaids and Swans tapestry could be located in California and we could see both of these masterworks together? Let me know if you have any ideas.

Robbie LaFleur, March 2022

*The last known public display of the 1893 Mermaids and Swans was at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The exhibition of Norwegian women’s crafts was in the Woman’s Building (sometimes referred to as the Women’s Pavilion). It was a small space compared to many countries.

From: Art and Handicraft in the Woman’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Edited by Maud Howe Elliott, 1854-1948. Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Company, 1894.

A news article that ran in at least 27 newspapers around the U.S. extolled the Norwegian exhibition. “Handsome work indeed are the embroideries and tapestries which the Norse women are producing under the leadership of Mrs. Frida Hansen who furnishes artistic designs and teaches the peasant women how to work them out.” (“Norway-Sweden: What They have to Show at the World’s Fair.” Topeka State Journal, August 3, 1893)

The article also had a funny tag line.

Both Norway and Sweden had buildings in the Exposition. The Norway building was a reproduction of a stave church and it is now in Orkdal, Norway.

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