Gerda Boëthius was the first woman to gain her doctorate in art history in Sweden. She defended her thesis in 1921 at Stockholm College. She was the first director of Zorngården, started the journal Hemslöjden, and was awarded the title of Professor.
Gerda Boëthius was born in 1890. She came from an academic background. Her father, Simon Johannes, was a historian and held the Skytte professorial chair in rhetoric and political science at Uppsala University from 1901. He was also honorary chairman of the Västmanland-Dala nation student body in Uppsala and had previously been a parliamentarian of the second chamber for the conservative Lantmanna party. Gerda Boëthius’ mother Essie was a housewife. Gerda Boëthius had three brothers – Gösta, Axel, and Bertil – all of whom were successful academics. Gösta became a legal practitioner whilst Axel and Bertil were academics within the humanities. Gerda Boëthius was particularly close to her brother Axel, who was a professor of classical archaeology and ancient history at Gothenburg College, and they maintained a lifelong correspondence. Gerda Boëthius met a lot of famous people in her well-educated family home. When she was twelve she and her brothers got to meet Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Emma and Anders Zorn, when they visited her parents in Uppsala. According to her own accounts this was not the first time she had met the Zorns. Anders Zorn had painted a portrait of her father, Simon Johannes, in 1903, which he then donated to the Västmanland-Dala nation student body in Uppsala. Thus, by the time Gerda Boëthius started working for Zorn in Mora they already knew each other.
While Gerda Boëthius was at high school in Uppsala the principal is said to have informed her parents a few years before her graduation that she appeared to lack academic ability and was not suited for higher education. Despite this Gerda Boëthius enrolled in the Department of Art History at Uppsala University in 1911 where she studied under Johnny Roosval. In December 1912 she gained her Bachelor’s degree in art history, history of religions, and theoretical philosophy. When Roosval was appointed docent at Stockholm College she accompanied him to continue her studies there and he came to influence her future research. Gerda Boëthius’ fellow students included Henrik Cornell, Sigurd Erixon, Ragnar Josephson, and Andreas Lindblom, all of whom became famous professors of art history. Her female colleagues Ingeborg Wilcke, Ingegerd Henschen, and Vera Wahlin all married male fellow students and thus had to desist from continuing their studies. However, Ingegerd Henschen-Cornell did gain her doctorate in art history during the 1940s, thus becoming the fourth woman qualified as a doctor of art history in Sweden.
In 1914 Gerda Boëthius was employed, along with Henrik Cornell, to organise an exhibition on the Middle Ages in Härnösand. Johnny Roosval was part of the exhibition committee and in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue he wrote that Henrik Cornell had been responsible for the exhibition, with Miss Gerda Boëthius as his assistant. Gerda Boëthius felt that this was an unfair description of her efforts as she and Henrik Cornell had worked together equally.
Gerda Boëthius had already received a commission from Anders Zorn in Mora, whilst she was still studying in Stockholm in 1914. Zorn knew of her expertise in timber buildings and thus wanted her to be part of the planning and erection of Gammelgården – an open-air museum, which eventually became a complete Mora farm, comprising timber buildings from the Middle Ages through to the twentieth century. This early job with Anders and Emma Zorn became a determining factor in Gerda Boëthius’ future career.
Gerda Boëthius gained her licentiate in 1916 with a dissertation entitled Studier i Mälardalens och Dalarnas tegelarkitektur and she then decided to do a doctorate in art history. She moved to Mora in 1919 in order to work on inventorying the art collection at Zorngården. She continued working on her doctorate at the same time. She spent various periods in Stockholm to focus on her doctorate, which was entitled De tegelornerade gråstenskyrkorna i norra Svealand. Ett bidrag till kännedomen om stilströmningarna under den yngre medeltiden. She completed her thesis in 1921 and when it was passed she became the first woman in Sweden to be awarded a doctorate in art history.
Gerda Boëthius published her book Studier i den nordiska timmerbyggnadskonsten in 1927 and this led to her gaining a docent position at Stockholm College. The following year she substituted for her former professor Johnny Roosval during his 1928-1930 sabbatical from the Zorn professorial chair. Roosval subsequently took up another professorship and the Zorn chair became available. Gerda Boëthius applied and, given her position as docent along with her 27 academic publications, she was well qualified for the post. This process made her the first woman to apply for a professorship at Stockholm College. Despite her substantial qualifications the entirely male panel did not, however, list her as first preference for the post. After that decision Gerda Boëthius wrote a letter to her brother Axel stating “my anger towards the experts swells sharply from time to time, but mostly towards Roosval who revealed himself to be so lacking in the gentlemanly instinct”. Nevertheless, a few years later she was appointed professor and from 1938 she used the title of Professor Gerda Boëthius.
Gerda Boëthius continued to be actively involved in the Zorn museum whilst also frequently travelling on lecture tours. She became very close with Emma Zorn and supported Emma for a long time. They lived together at Zorngården. Carl-Gustaf Boëthius, Gerda Boëthius’ nephew, wrote in a letter to Marta Järnfeldt-Carlsson that his family felt that Gerda Boëthius had become like a surrogate daughter to Emma Zorn, who was childless.
The Zorns’ will, written in 1919, noted that after their deaths almost all their property assets were to be donated to the state, with a further intention of setting up a museum of Anders Zorn’s artwork. Emma Zorn was determined that this museum should be completed while she was still alive. The architect was Ragnar Östberg and Gerda Boëthius was to be responsible for maintaining the buildings whilst also serving as director of the museum. Intense labour ensued for several years and the Zorn museum was opened in June 1939.
Gerda Boëthius still had time for various other projects, alongside her research for her doctorate and her work at Zorngården. She organised two major exhibitions on Anders Zorn, a retrospective display in 1924 and a more comprehensive exhibition in 1930. She spent 25 years working on a major book on Anders Zorn, Zorn – Tecknaren, Målaren, Etsaren och Skulptören, which was published by Nordisk Rotogravyr in 1949.
Gerda Boëthius also published several comprehensive academic works. The most well known of these is Hallar, tempel och stavkyrkor. Johnny Roosval believed it to be the best academic work which had been published by those applying for the Zorn professorial chair, even though he subsequently did not consider Gerda Boëthius adequately qualified to hold the chair.
Gerda Boëthius also became active within the handicrafts movement. This led to her setting up the journal Hemslöjden, which was published in four editions every year. The first was released in 1933 in conjunction with a major handicrafts exhibition at Liljevalch art gallery. Gerda Boëthius served as the journal editor but also contributed many articles to each edition.
Following the death of Emma Zorn, Gerda Boëthius was forced to move out of Zorngården. She then settled at Frustugan in Mora Noret, quite a distance from the centre of Mora. She retired as museum director in 1957 and this gave her even more time to write. She released another book about Zorn in 1959, which was the same year she retired from working with Hemslöjden. The journal subsequently folded.
Gerda Boëthius died in Mora in 1961.