Hilda Heyman was an artist. She was unique for her time in Swedish art, through the Jewish motifs in her paintings and etchings.
Hilda Heyman was born in 1872 as the fifth child of six. Her father, Aron Heyman, was the squire of Vårgårda Manor. He started a mill enterprise that later led to other businesses: rice (Vårgårdaris) and dog food (Doggy Hundfoder). Hilda Heyman had the same name as her mother.
During the 1800s, peddlers were a common sight in Sweden. On one occasion, the children at the Manor, among them Hilda Heyman, teased a Jewish peddler and pointed fingers at him. She was told by her mother to stop since the Heyman family was also Jewish. The young Hilda Heyman was strongly affected by this event and felt all her life a deep kinship with her Jewish roots.
The family noticed Hilda Heyman’s artistic gifts early on. She was allowed to start at the Valand art school in Gothenburg (nowadays HDK-Valand) where she studied painting with Carl Wilhelmson in 1897—1900. She spent the summers at home at the manor where she decorated the tiled stoves and pulldown blinds. She also painted portraits of the family members, temperance folk, and old women with their chickens. She made her debut with a separate exhibition at the art gallery Konsthallen in Stockholm, but the reception was lukewarm.
The Heyman family was well off and after her studies in Gothenburg, Hilda Heyman received economic support to be able to travel around in Europe. An atelier was also built for her at home in Vårgårda. She studied with Fernand Léger in Paris and at academies in Munich and Italy. Later she travelled to Spain, Cornwall, and Palestine.
Hilda Heyman took her inspiration from the harbours in Brittany and coastal landscapes in Lofoten and the Shetland Islands. She showed all these works along with paintings, drawings and engravings from the farms of her home district at a separate exhibition at the Galerie Pleyel in Paris in 1929. The time she received praise from the critics: “splendid stuff, all of it”.
In a long article in the major Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter in 1930, Hilda Heyman told the story of her visit to the little town of Mukacevo in the mountainous regions of eastern Czechoslovakia. There she had experienced a completely alien world, a community in which life was totally dominated by the laws of Moses. The town consisted to 80 percent of ultra-orthodox Jews — she used the term old Jews — and, despite the fact that tradition forbade any depiction of them, the artist succeeded through coaxing and a little cunning in getting both boys and men to be models. The women were almost never seen outside their homes and in the synagogue they sat behind concealing grills.
The article in Dagens Nyheter was published in connection with Hilda Heyman’s exhibition at the gallery Gummesons konstsalong in Stockholm (the present Galleri Gummeson). The motifs were taken from old-fashioned Jewish street environments and were mainly portraits of Jewish men with curls in front of their ears and wearing hats. The critics praised her for her “beautifully balanced and matt colouring”. Hilda Heyman continued to travel and she was captivated by other Jewish-dominated environments that were still to be found in Poland, Hungary and Russia. She painted rabbis on the streets, Jewish market sellers and visitors outside the synagogue.
The months before the outbreak of war in 1939, Hilda Heyman was staying at Lerwick on the Shetland Islands but later settled down in Paris. During the second world war, she prepared an exhibition when German soldiers came to make house searches. Her art and usual motifs were not appreciated by the occupying powers, so her pictures were confiscated. Strangely enough, she got them back unharmed, possibly because she was a Swedish citizen, and in 1946 she was able to show them at an exhibition at Galerie Moderne in Stockholm.
In 1945, the Värmland Museum printed a brochure about her works: Mosaiska kultföremål jämte ett 40-tal målningar av Hilda Heyman med motiv från Polens och Tjeckoslovakiens ghetton samt från Palestina. In 1951, it was time for a retrospective exhibition at Welamsons konstgalleri in Stockholm. Hilda Heyman was later afflicted by prolonged ill health and died in 1955, at 83 years of age. She had willed her remaining paintings to the Jewish congregation that however declined them. Her relatives saved the works and arranged a memorial exhibition at the Jewish Library in 1992.
Hilda Heyman’s remains rest in the Southern Jewish Cemetery in Stockholm.