Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King Carl XII of Sweden (1682-1718) 1714c.

Michael Dahl (1659-1743)

Portrait of King Carl XII of Sweden (1682-1718), Michael Dahl
Oil on canvas
18th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.2 cm
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This heroic image of Sweden's warrior king is related to a portrait that Dahl -a fellow countryman- painted for the Swedish envoy in London, Count Carl Gyllenborg c.1714 (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm).

In the absence of the sitter, who was for most of his short life, engaged in warfare against his neighbours, Dahl is believed to have modelled the head after a sculpture. This, if it is true, may be detected in the rather hagiographical treatment which remains, nonetheless, appropriate to a courageous and accomplished general and a national hero.

The commission is testament to the way in which Dahl, until near the end of his career an understated but accomplished politician, remained in contact with influential Swedish circles in London at the height of his English success. Count Gyllenborg remains an enigmatic figure in the diplomatic history of the time- a connoisseur of literature and painting, and at the same time an intriguer who was to be arrested by the English authorities some three years in 1717 for conspiring with the Jacobites. This event, which led to a suspension of diplomatic relations between Britain and Sweden, ended Gyllenborg's career in England, though not, of course, that of Dahl, whose tact and loose association with the emigre community kept him free of suspicion.

The events of 1717, however, ended Britain''s love affair with the dashing Swedish king, and provide, therefore, a probable terminus ante quem for the execution of this portrait.

Some considerable variation has been employed in the production of this version, which shares only the head with the Stockholm portrait. In the latter the King is shown without armour, wearing a fur-lined uniform coat, resting his baton on a convenient plinth and with his gloved right hand gripping his sword hilt. In our painting the details of costume have been generalised, but with the introduction of the cuirass and the employment of the classic stance of the commander, considerable impact has been gained. The painting's authority as a new composition rests not least upon the various pentimenti that show some debate over the position of the marshal''s baton, and over the altered positioning of a belt over the adjacent part of the sitter's buffcoat. The besieged town in the background is suggested with superb economy, unmistakeably in the hand of the master, whilst the swift, hogshair brushstokes that make up the night sky again show the verve that the studio version would lack.

This triumphant image of the king reflects the military expansion that marked Sweden''s history following Carl's accession in 1697. In 1700 he invaded the rival Kingdom of Denmark (which then included Norway), and in the same year safeguarded his other flank by defeating Russia at Narva. For the next six years he turned his attention southwards and waged a successful campaign against Poland and Saxony. Defeat by the armies of Peter the Great at Pultowa in July 1709 brought an end to this run of victories, and the king was forced to retire to Turkey. His eventual return from that country in 1714 may well have inspired the commission to Dahl. In 1715 Sweden was once more at war with Norway, and after a war of three years, marked by conditions of cold and great hardship, Carl was killed at the siege of Frederikshald by an enemy musket ball.
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