(Falun 1894 - 1935 Stockholm)
Portrait of the Sculptor Natanael Cassén, Stockholm 1917
Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 46.4 cm
Signed, dated and inscribed lower right A. Fridell Sthlm 1917
Martin Nordgren, Stockholm, 1947;
Gothenburg, Göteborgs Auktionsverk, auction sale March 31, 1977, lot 563;
Private collection, New York.
Eric Detthow, Axel Fridell, David Tägtström, Sveriges Allmänna Konstförening, Stockholm, February 1918;
Namnlösa porträtt, Liljevalchs Konsthall, Stockholm, January 15-30, 1938, no. 23
Karl Asplund, ‘Målaren Axel Fridell’, in Ord Och Bild, llustrerad Månadsskrift, Stockholm 1937, no. 12, p. 626;
Karl Asplund, Axel Fridell, Stockholm 1947, p. 85;
Karl Haskel, Axel Fridell. Bilder 2. Oljemålningar, teckningar, fotografier och brev, catalogue raisonné, Stockholm 1989, p. 138, full-page repr. p. 139
Axel Fridell was one of the leading Swedish printmakers of the twentieth-century. Evidence of his activity as a painter and watercolorist is confined to his early career.
Fridell was born and raised in Falun. As a young man he attended evening classes in art and went on to train under Anshelm Schultzberg, who was something of a mentor to him. In 1913, Fridell moved to Stockholm, where he worked in the studio of the painter Carl Wilhelmson. On the advice of Schultzberg, Fridell enrolled at the Royal Swedish Academy of Art to continue his studies. His teacher at the Academy’s school of etching was Axel Tallberg, who encouraged him to develop skills in a range of printmaking techniques. In 1914, Fridell visited Copenhagen for the first time, where he had opportunity to study the work of the great Danish Golden Age painters, particularly Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and Christen Købke.
The year 1917 was a particularly productive year for Fridell, marked not least by a series of portrait commissions. First signs of recognition followed. His portraits testify to the extraordinary sensitivity with which he would capture the sitter’s emotional condition. Many of them depict friends and associates from Stockholm artistic circles. The present portrait of Fridell’s colleague and friend, the Finnish sculptor Natanael Cassén, is a fine example.
A gaunt young man fixes his large gray eyes on the viewer. A gold ring glints on each hand while the rest of the image is dominated by a muted palette. The young man is seated in an armed rattan chair. Behind his right arm is a painting, leaning against the wall – the setting is Fridell’s studio. A studio photograph taken in 1917 shows Fridell in the very same rattan chair (Fig. 1) with the present portrait on an easel before him. Although there are differences between the portrait in the photograph and the portrait as it is today, Karl Haskel, the author of the Fridell catalogue raisonné, regards the two as identical. Indeed, technical examination and analysis have provided conclusive support for his assessment of the painting. A number of pentimenti – that is, changes made by the artist during the process of painting – are still visible, such as alterations to the sitter’s hat, the position of the hands and arms, and the height of the arm of the chair. It is not inconceivable that the exhibition in Stockholm scheduled for the following year, 1918, prompted Fridell to rework certain areas.
Although very little is known about the sculptor Natanael Cassèn, it is clear that he moved in the same artistic circles as Fridell in Stockholm. Fridell made two etched portraits of Cassén in 1917. An etching titled The Sculptor Natanael Cassén I (Fig. 2) was formerly in the collection of King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden (1882-1973). The King was an ardent print collector. In 1972 he donated the etching to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Cassén was also active as a critic and writer on art-related topics under the pseudonym Helge Cohn.
In 1921, Fridell traveled to Italy, particularly Florence, San Gimignano and Venice. On his return to Sweden he lived in his home town of Falun but in 1923 resumed his travels and eventually settled in Paris, remaining there until 1925. The first of several visits to London took place in 1926-7. Fridell’s works include portraits, landscapes and cityscapes. They often reflect the darker aspects of existence and occasionally express a mood of anxiety. He signed a contract with the fine art firm Bukowskis in May 1929, giving the firm exclusive rights to the sale of his work in return for a monthly stipend of 750 kronor, valid until June 30, 1931. The last trips Fridell made were to London in 1933, where he visited many of Whistler’s favorite haunts, and to Paris in 1934. He died of lung cancer at the age of forty in Stockholm on May 26, 1935.
 See Karl Asplund, Axel Fridell, Stockholm 1947, p. 85.  For details of Fridell’s biography, see Henning Repetzky, ‘Fridell, Axel’, in Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon, Berlin, Boston 2018.  See Karl Haskel, Axel Fridell. Bilder 2. Oljemålningar, teckningar, fotografier och brev, catalogue raisonné, Stockholm 1989, p. 135.  http://sis.modernamuseet.se/view/objects/asitem/search$0040/0?t:state:flow=14bd9f8e-bf07-4c81-b9ea-0fb00e079648 (accessed April 20, 2022).