Mayor’s portrait comes out of hiding to take its place in Duluth City Hall

David Ericson’s painting of former Duluth Mayor Henry Truelsen

David Ericson’s portrait of former Duluth Mayor Henry Truelsen

The St. Louis Historical Society is currently showing six paintings by David Ericson (1869-1946), a portrait and landscape artist who lived in Duluth. His piece “Skyline” shows the waterfront in 1882 — when Ericson was 13.

This earliest surviving painting by native Duluthian David Ericson (1869-1946), a watercolor of the Duluth “skyline” from the waterfront in 1882, is one of six Ericson works featured in a new exhibit at the Depot.

Hearing about the show reminded me of an interesting story involving Ericson I ran across when I was doing some informal research on my husband’s great-grandfather, Henry Truelsen, who was mayor of Duluth from 1896-1900.
A May 24, 1921, Duluth News Tribune article headlined “Council accepts gift of former mayor’s picture” recounts how a portrait of Truelsen commissioned from Ericson sat in “hiding” for 20 years, according to then-Mayor Sam Snively. Snively is quoted:
“One of my first steps after assuming office was to bring from hiding and have placed in the council chamber the portrait of Henry Truelsen, former mayor of Duluth.”
“The portrait was painted 20 years ago at the request of some of Mr. Truelsen’s friends but was never paid for. It has been in the keeping of J. Johnson, acting in behalf of Mr. Ericson. The portrait was valued at $1,100. Wishing to make a contribution, Mr. Ericson reduced the price to $600.”
Ericson finally got his $600 payment for the painting when Snively undertook his campaign and Thomas A. Merritt of Duluth stepped forward to buy the painting as a gift to the city.
The article goes on: “The painting is encased in a beautifully gilded frame bearing a tablet upon which is engraved: ‘Henry Truelsen, mayor of Duluth, 1896-1900. Through whose untiring efforts Duluth obtained its water and gas plant. Presented to the city by Thomas A. Merritt.’ ”
The engraving’s ever-so-brief mention of Truelsen’s work on the water and gas plant refers to a tumultuous battle led by Truelsen for public ownership of the city’s water supply at a reasonable price. His objection to the purchase price in 1894, while he was president of the Board of Public Works, led to his populist candidacy for Duluth mayor.
Actually, Snively exaggerates a bit the length of time the painting sat while Ericson waited for payment. A News Tribune story from April 11, 1910, announces that Ericson had been commissioned to travel to Zenith, N.D., Truelsen’s new home, to paint the portrait. A committee had been formed and a “subscription list” drawn up to collect money to pay for the painting, but apparently that effort was not successful.
No word on whether Ericson was miffed by the drying up of funding for the painting, but he was quite successful nonetheless.

David Ericson

Ericson, who was born in Sweden, immigrated to the United States with his family and settled in Duluth in 1872 when he was a young child. The family lived on Park Point near the spot where the Aerial Lift Bridge now stands.

"Salting the Sheep" by David Ericson

His talent was recognized early, and his first success was winning a gold medal at the Minnesota State Fair for his painting “Salting the Sheep” when he was 16. He spent time living and painting in Provincetown, Mass., New York City and Paris, studying for a time with well-known painter James McNeill Whistler.

David Ericson in his studio

And Ericson was appreciated as well in his hometown of Duluth, as an Oct. 21, 1924, article observes: “A prophet may never be a prophet in his own country, but occasionally a painter is appreciated by his home town as is evidenced by the unusual interest which Duluthians are taking in Mr. Ericson’s pictures.”
Ericson was a popular lecturer at women’s and educators’ groups around town, with his paintings of scenes from here and abroad proving popular with the hometown crowd.

"Morning of Life" by David Ericson, a painting of Ericson’s young son at a dock on Park Point in Duluth

A Nov. 12, 1961, clipping reports a trip to Duluth by Ericson’s son, David Ericson Jr., who donated 18 of his father’s paintings to the Tweed Museum at UMD. The Tweed featured Ericson’s paintings most recently in 2006 in the show “David Ericson, Always Returning: The Life and Work of a Duluth Cultural Icon.”

By Mary Beamish, DNT copy editor

To learn more about David Ericson on the Minnesota Artists Web site:

To learn more about Henry Truelsen in Minnesota History magazine: