Ester Nilsson was an artist who was active between the early 1900s and the 1970s.
Ester Nilsson was born in the cramped working-class area of Gothenburg known as Majorna in 1887. Her mother, Tilda, and her father, Svante Karlsson, were both children of Alingsås area crofters and had moved to the big city seeking work. The ongoing social transformation entailed a move away from the agricultural towards the industrial. Her mother sold milk at the local square, whilst her father worked as a joiner. He was involved in construction in the Annedal area of town during a period of housing shortage in Gothenburg.
Ester Nilsson’s father, like many poor people living in cramped conditions, soon fell ill with tuberculosis, leaving him bed-bound at home. Ester Nilsson, three years old at the time, and her sister who was two years her senior, thus were largely left to their own devices while their mother was working. They would spend their days sitting still, watching as Carl Larsson and his fellow workers transformed the stairwell leading into Nya Elementärläroverket för flickor into a visual representation of Swedish women’s journey through history. The Karlsson family lived right next door to the school and this was her earliest childhood memory. It was at that point that she decided to become an artist.
Ester Nilsson’s father died before she turned four. Three years later her mother remarried, to a widower named Johan Magnus Edman who was one of their neighbours. He too had come to Gothenburg seeking work. Johan Magnus Edman had a son from his first marriage and Tilda had three from her first marriage. They went on to have another seven children together and dreamed of returning to live in the countryside. They tried to put money aside from their various jobs – she as a milk-seller and he as a smith at Göteborgs Mekaniska Verkstad, known locally as “Keillers”.
Although Ester Nilsson achieved top, or second-best, marks in almost all her subjects and was the top student of her year when she graduated there was no concept that she could continue her education, even though that is what she wanted most. She was needed at home in order to look after her younger half-siblings and, later on, to contribute to the family income. Ester, having just turned 17 and been confirmed in the Swedish church, then began to work at a studio at Nordiska Industri Aktiebolaget (NIAB). Her qualifications included having gained top marks in both drawing and handicrafts. Her job was to produce workshop drawings and to create her own embroidery designs which were sold internationally.
Ester Nilsson was 18 years old when she met the man she went on to marry, Mårten Nilsson, in 1905. At that time he was training to become a public-school teacher. He was a very enterprising farmer’s son from the Västgöta area who was interested in economics. He had grown up seeing women undertaking agricultural work side-by-side with men and he immediately picked up on Ester Nilsson’s parents’ dream of moving back into the countryside. He was good at getting things done, organising, and borrowing money. Her parents bought some land in Fiskebäck, on the outskirts of Gothenburg, large enough for a house, a small-holding, and some gardening. Eventually they even opened a milk-shop in the Gothenburg market hall.
In July 1909 they moved to Fiskebäcken. The young couple also got married that summer. Ester Nilsson had by then resigned from her job with NIAB. She, like her other siblings, began to work within her parents’ new business. She and her new husband moved into the top floor of her parents’ house. Whenever Ester Nilsson had a spare moment to herself she would pull out her box of paints or she would pick up a piece of embroidery.
Mårten and Ester Nilsson had two children together: Per-Olof, born in 1912, and Lennart, born in 1915. When Lennart was three years old Ester Nilsson was finally able to put part of her dream into practise. Encouraged by Mårten, she began attending Slöjdföreningen’s school in Gothenburg (later known as the College of design and handicrafts, now HDK-Valand). She learned to draw freehand, to design furniture, textile art and art history, amongst other things. Maybe she would become a designer? One of her teachers was the artist Albert Eldh and he probably encouraged her to apply to Gothenburg museum’s school of drawing and painting (now known as HDK-Valand).
Having just barely survived the Spanish flu Ester Nilsson and her family moved into central Gothenburg. She began to attend the Valand school of painting, taking lessons with Tor Bjurström. At the 1922 student show she submitted a life-sized study of a model in oils, entitled Kristushuvud efter Da Vincis Nattvarden. She was 35 years old at that point and the mother of two young children. During the daytime she did her best to absorb as much art as possible but the evenings were spent with her family. Much later on she noted down Tor Bjurström’s words: “It is a shame that you cannot entirely devote yourself to painting, as you have such great natural ability and an exceptional sense for colours”.
However, the minute she had a spare moment Ester Nilsson would get her paints out. “Painting is life”, she often repeated. Mårten supported her ambitions and they often spent the summers at a boarding-house. Ester Nilsson’s studio was the outdoors. She was definitely an outdoors painter. The countryside of Bohus county and Jämtland frequently served as the themes of her paintings. When she was not painting outside she would paint still-lives, usually depicting flowers and a religious symbol of some kind. She had already begun experimenting with various colour schemes at Valand, seeking to portray the variations of nature, as seen in the summer skies, in grey weather, on mountains, in tree trunks, in the rocks and seas.
Ester Nilsson’s first solo exhibition was held at Skanstull in Gothenburg and the vernissage was on 18 November 1947, when she was 60 years old. On display were 60 of her works in oils, pastels, and watercolours including Brygga i Krokom, Höst i Nälden, Timmer i Indalsälven, and Sjöbodar vid Gullholmen. Her prices ranged between 100 and 500 kronor and she sold many of her pieces.
However, this vernissage which began as one of Ester Nilsson’s happiest days ended as her saddest day. Her youngest son, a captain in the Swedish airforce, was killed along with 20 others in a plane crash in Italy, in what was the worst accident to befall the Swedish airforce. Ester Nilsson fell into a deep depression from which she never properly recovered. Nevertheless, she continued painting, and it was her main source of comfort. She held smaller shows of her work, including at art galleries and at the Konsum restaurant on Avenyn in Gothenburg.
When Ester Nilsson was 75 years her life changed dramatically. She suffered a brain haemorrhage which left half of her body paralysed. Her medical notes record: “… She is artistically gifted, has painted for around 50 years. Held a vernissage in 1947, sold quite a few paintings (…)”. Following a lengthy period of convalescence Ester Nilsson returned to painting, one-handed, which is also noted in her medical notes. Her themes focused mainly on still-lives and painting from photographs.
Medical visits increased, not just for her but for her husband Mårten as well, who eventually died in 1968. Ester once again fell ill with influenza in 1971, requiring medical care at Sahlgrenska hospital. Her medical notes state: “(…) reads a lot of different literature, draws and paints and does various types of handicrafts.” The doctors decided that she was no longer able to look after herself at home and she moved into Krokslätts hospice. The staff there encouraged her to keep painting. The staff’s duties even formally included the task of rinsing out her paint brushes. Her medical notes from 1973 state: “(…) spends much of the day painting. Has painted quite a large number of small-sized paintings (…)”. Several of the staff members brought photographs of their children in the hopes she would produce paintings of them. Gothenburg municipality even purchased several of her paintings during the period she spent living at the hospice. Ester Nilsson was also invited to hold a second solo exhibition in the therapy rooms. The vernissage was held on 5 October 1974. Family, friends, strangers and even the press attended. In addition to the health service newspaper, representatives from the Göteborgs-Tidningen and Expressen newspapers were present to mark the event.
A little over a year later Ester Nilsson died. The model study she had completed at Valand was donated to Krokslätts hospice. Her box of paints was later inherited by Gunnel Wåhlstrand, her son Lennart’s grandchild, an internationally renowned and treasured artist.