The Forgotten Portrait: Finding the Elusive Painting of Jürgen Polman the Elder

For over 50 years, this 17th-century portrait of Jürgen Polman the Elder has remained hidden, until now. Polmanarkivet has successfully unearthed this important artwork and invites you to explore its origins and the story of how it was rediscovered.


I. Jürgen Polman the Elder

As the progenitor of the Swedish and Estonian branches, Jürgen Polman1also known as Göran, Jöran and Georg Polman/Pohlman/Pålman plays a prominent role in the family history. He was a nobleman in Livonia at the end of the 16th century, who in 1600 entered the service of Karl IX and became his hauptmann, or captain at Anzen in Livland.2“Påhlman, släkt”, Riksarkivet, https://sok.riksarkivet.se/sbl/Presentation.aspx?id=7430, accessed: 21 March 2022 In 1613, Jürgen was the commander of Padise, and in 1615, he was briefly pledged the Estonian knight manor Tuttomäggi (Tuudi) in the parish of Karusen by its heirs. In 1631, King Gustavus Adolphus donated the estate and manor of Öötla (Oethel) in Estonia’s St. Petri parish as a reward for his service.3Gustaf Elgenstierna, ed., Den Introducerade Svenska Adelns Attartavlor med Tillagg och Rattelser [The Genealogies of the Introduced Swedish Nobility] (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1925-36) He died c. 1640/41. Read Jürgen’s full biography at Polmanarkivet here:

II. Finding the painting 

One week ago, on a rainy Sunday — a perfect day for research — I stumbled upon an intriguing mention in “Castles and Manor Houses in Sweden” (Swedish: Slott och herresäten i Sverige).4This landmark work is considered the most comprhensive art historical reference work on Swedish manor buildings, including royal palaces and state-owned castles.

Mitt emot, över den öppna spisen av italiensk marmor, hänger ett porträtt av Jurgen Polman (död omkring 1640), ättens stamfader. Tavlan är malad efter originalet pa Karlbergs slott. 

Slott och herresäten i Sverige

It spoke of a portrait of Jürgen Polman, the patriarch of the Påhlman family, hanging proudly above an exquisite Italian marble fireplace. The painting, a replica of the original at Karlberg Castle, dated back to the 17th century, probably around the time of Jürgen’s death. 

At first, there was a wave of excitement, but doubts soon swept in. Could there have been a mix-up? Perhaps the author intended to write about Jürgen’s son, Jöran Polman the Younger, whose well-known portrait can be found among Wrangel’s officers in the halls of Skokloster Castle. Yet, upon closer examination, I realized the author didn’t make a mistake. Jürgen Polman was specifically mentioned as the progenitor of the family, with an accurate date of death. As I delved further into the text, I discovered an intriguing detail. There was another reference to the same painting, with the words “den äldre” (The Elder) appended to his name. I jumped out of my seat, but then sat back down with uncertainty. How on earth would I ever locate this elusive portrait?

Desperate for answers, I reached out to Anna Catellani of Atelje’ Catellani, the chief conservator at Karlbergs slott, who had restored numerous artworks there over the years. Karlberg Castle holds a large number of portraits of royalty, commanders and events which had decisive importance for Sweden. Most of the artwork consist of older paintings on canvas and panels made during the 17th century.”5Karlbergs Slott”, Ateljé Catellani, https://ateljecatellani.se/karlbergs-slott-2/, accessed: 21 August 2023 However, even her extensive knowledge couldn’t help me find a trace of the portrait in their archives. Catellani suggested I turn to the portrait archive at the Swedish National Archives (Swedish: Riksarkivet), Solna City Image Archive (Swedish: Solna stads bildarkiv), and the Swedish Potrait Archive (Swedish: Svenskt Portrattarkiv) for assistance. Each institution referred me to another, having no idea of its whereabouts:

“Unfortunately we do not have a photograph of Jürgen Polman the Elder in our image archive pertaining to Solna stad.”

“Unfortunately I have no immediate answer to give you, we have to look in to this and get back to you! I’ll let you know as soon as I have more info on the paintings whereabouts.”

“We can not find anything when we research the name Jürgen Polman, or a photo of the portrait you are looking for.”

“Unfortunately I have no idea.”

“Concerning your question about a portrait and photo of Jürgen Polman I can tell you following. There are no photos of him in The Royal Palace archives.”

With hope quickly fading, I decided to turn my attention to the copy of the painting and this was also the advice given to me by the local municipality. I contacted the owner of the manor house where the copied portrait was supposedly kept. Soon after, I received a response with words I won’t forget: I do have the portrait you are looking for. This is a researcher’s dream scenario! The owner graciously provided a photo of the copied painting, confirmed its provenance, and permission to include in our archive.6To the donor, I humbly thank you! (Please note that specific location details have been omitted to protect the owner’s privacy).

III. The portrait of Jürgen Polman

Portrait of Jürgen Polman the Elder
Portrait of Jürgen Polman the Elder (d. 1641). A copy of the portrait is located in a private residence, based on the original located at Karlbergs slott. This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Image must be attributed to Polmanarkivet shared under the same license.

The painter of Jürgen’s portrait is unknown. It was painted in the first half of the 17th century and probably in Sweden. Karlberg Castle maintains a collection of portraits of fältherrar or field commanders. Most of the portraits of field commanders there were painted during the 17th century.7ibid. Many of them are painted by David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl, so it’s possible this is the same artist. 8It’s believed that all of these portraits have been conserved and restored, so either this portrait was missing or part of a different collection.

The portrait depicts a wise-looking Jürgen almost in full-figure, gazing slightly to his left. He has long brown locks; for men, the 17th century was an age of leather, long locks and lace,9“1630-1639”, Fashion History Timeline, https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1630-1639/, accessed: 31 August 2023 as we see here. The somewhat tight and rigid posture conveys a sense of pride and control, fitting for a military commander. Yet, the color scheme of the painting is warm; Jürgen is dressed in large amounts of opulent gold fabric decorated with lace embroidery, and what appear to be silk cuffs and collar. A black sash drapes across his body, with a sword hanging on his left side and his right hand, encased in a leather glove, gripping a staff. In the top left corner, the Påhlman coat of arms — of an armoured arm holding a bullet — can be seen.   

IV. Tips for genealogists and family historians

If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s to have patience. I’d like to end this post with three tips for genealogists and family historians who are trying to locate portraits of their ancestors.

Don’t give up. It’s easy to become frustrated, especially when you know an artwork exists and you can’t locate it. Be persistent because you don’t know what you’ll find along the way. Even if you don’t find the exact painting or artefact you’re looking for, you might come across something else that’s valuable in your research. In this case, in the effort to locate the painting of Jürgen, I also found other interesting tidbits related to his heirs. With that in mind, leave no stone unturned (even if the stone feels irrelevant in the moment).

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We cannot hope to do this research alone. Odds are someone has researched the same ancestor or branch of the family, or they can point you in the right direction. I communicated with nearly 10 different people in trying to locate this painting and it paid off. Even if they didn’t know of the painting or its whereabouts, they provided me with other suggestions. If your ancestor is from Sweden in particular, you’re in luck! I’ve found Swedes to be among the most helpful in trying to help you with your research.

Don’t search in only the obvious places. Google is not always your friend here (although it can be helpful). You’ll need to visit or contact local museums, archives, or specialists to help you. It’s even better if you know the exact parish or municipality your ancestor came from, or where your evidence tells you the painting is located. Also, don’t limit your search to obvious places like the national archives (for example, Riksarkivet in Sweden). In Sweden, much of the nation’s rich heritage is found in historic houses, stately homes, landed estates and regal residences — these manor houses were once owned by noble families and many of them are still privately owned. Ask nicely — and respect privacy — and you might find they are happy to help.


Update: Military Academy Karlberg (Swedish: Militärhögskolan Karlberg) replied after publication. They have located the original painting, which is located at Karlbergs slott under the name Göran Pålman. Thank you to the good folks there for your part in rediscovering this portrait.

Footnotes
  • 1
    also known as Göran, Jöran and Georg Polman/Pohlman/Pålman
  • 2
    “Påhlman, släkt”, Riksarkivet, https://sok.riksarkivet.se/sbl/Presentation.aspx?id=7430, accessed: 21 March 2022
  • 3
    Gustaf Elgenstierna, ed., Den Introducerade Svenska Adelns Attartavlor med Tillagg och Rattelser [The Genealogies of the Introduced Swedish Nobility] (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1925-36)
  • 4
    This landmark work is considered the most comprhensive art historical reference work on Swedish manor buildings, including royal palaces and state-owned castles.
  • 5
    Karlbergs Slott”, Ateljé Catellani, https://ateljecatellani.se/karlbergs-slott-2/, accessed: 21 August 2023
  • 6
    To the donor, I humbly thank you!
  • 7
    ibid.
  • 8
    It’s believed that all of these portraits have been conserved and restored, so either this portrait was missing or part of a different collection.
  • 9
    “1630-1639”, Fashion History Timeline, https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1630-1639/, accessed: 31 August 2023
Jake Peterson
Jake Peterson

Jake’s greatest dream is to reveal stories that have been buried in history. He does this through rigorous research and combing through archives to preserve precious stories for future generations. Jake has qualifications in narrative therapy and family studies, and is an author, family historian, and researcher. In 2022, he published his first book “Arcadia.” Follow Jake on Instagram @polmanarkivet.

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