Jenny Nyström - the woman who created the image for a Swedish Christmas

A smiling tomte, with long beard and a basket of presents on his back, holds his arms out in an open position. The words 'God Jul!' in the background.

Jenny Nyström was the first person in Sweden to make a profession from illustrating children’s books and became Sweden’s most productive painter and illustrator.

Beth Daley (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Jenny Nyström was the first person in Sweden to make a profession from illustrating children’s books and became Sweden’s most productive painter and illustrator. She is also thought of as the mother of the Swedish Christmas tomte (a gnome-like figure from folklore).

Jenny was born in 1854 in Kalmar Sweden and moved to Gotherburg when she was eight years old. There, she started art school, and went on to the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm, then to further study in Paris.

Black and white photograph

How did Jenny Nyström create the Christmas tomte?

Jenny tried to convince a Swedish publisher to start producing postcards - she had seen these gain popularity during her stay in Paris - but was unsuccessful at the time. Instead, she produced some drawings for a children’s story called Lille Viggs äventyr på julafton (‘Little Vigg's Adventures on Christmas Eve’).

A sleigh drawn by horses, containing a boy and a tomte. Another tomte stands on the snowy ground to talk to them.

The author, Viktor Rydberg, saw these drawings and in 1871, his book was published with Jenny’s illustrations and has since become a much beloved Christmas story in Sweden. It was for this project that Jenny researched the folk figure of the tomte.

A postage stamp depicting a tomte, with a goat-drawn cart full of presents. He is looking through a window into a room with children in it.

The Swedish tomte looks like a gnome, with a long robe, a woolly hat and a long beard. The word ‘tomte’ comes from ‘tomt’ meaning a plot of land, or literally ‘homestead man’. The tomte works hard to care for animals, children and the home. All he asks for in return is a bowl of porridge. But he is mischievous and has a bad temper, so if he spots any bad behaviour he will not hesitate to throw the household into chaos!

Board with motif: Santas preparing for Christmas by setting a table, dressing a Christmas tree, lighting candles and cooking porridge.

Featuring in Rydberg’s Christmas story, Jenny’s depictions of the tomte - which bear more than a passing resemblance to Santa’s elves - linked the Swedish version of Santa to these gnomes of Scandinavian folklore. Subsequently, her depictions of tomte were used on many Christmas cards - and continue to be used in creative designs, memes and animations today.

via GIPHY, by Aleksandra Strzelichowska, 2022.
Based on ' 'Julkort, brevkort' by Nyström, Jenny (1854-1946) - 1970 - Malmö Museum, Sweden - CC BY

What inspired Jenny Nyström?

In 1911, Jenny won a contract to illustrate greetings cards for a publishing house. She was required to produce many illustrations each month to fulfil her contract. These drawings provided a great deal of exposure for her.

Jenny’s career as an illustrator was, if not prompted, then sustained and motivated, by a need to support her family. Her husband Daniel became ill with tuberculosis and was unable to finish his studies to become a doctor. So to support him and their son Curt, Jenny became both artist and entrepreneur.

Lots of her illustrations are of children living idyllic lives that recall her own childhood, they are full of joy and whimsy.

New year's card illustration. A young tomte jumps through a hoop held by an older tomte standing on a barrel. It looks like the young tomte will land on a pig running beneath him.
A young child carries a bowl of eggs, and is followed by two chickens, and four chicks.
Four children in an orchard of red apples. Three wearing aprons and headscarves standing, and one wearing a broad rimmed straw hat, seated on the ground holding out an apple.

Jenny explained her inspiration as follows: ‘The reason I mainly illustrate children’s books is probably because I have always loved children and have always wanted to show children something of the fair sunny land east of the sun and west of the moon, beauty which has remained in my memory from my childhood in Kalmar.’

A child, or a young tomte, at the seat of a makeshift aeroplane with sheets for wings, and a blue propeller.

Why did Jenny Nyström paint portraits?

Jenny’s work wasn’t all about Christmas or idyllic childhoods. She had a fine arts education and also produced artworks in a much more classicist, traditional style.

She painted portraits, including those of convalescents. This was a popular theme in visual art at the turn of the 20th century and would also have found resonance in Jenny’s own life with her husband’s illness. Daniel died in 1927.

A sick child lies back in an armchair, propped up on pillows and covered with a blanket and looks away to the right. Another child stands beside the chair, holding a bunch of flowers and looking down at the convalescent.

At the time, there was a rise of - and a backlash against - what had become known as the ‘New Woman’ - emancipated, rule-breaking, decadent women. The proliferation of convalescent pictures is thought to be an attempt to return feisty professional women to their rightful place in the home, either as sickly yet idealised subjects or as doting nursemaids.

Jenny’s convalescent painting follows a classicist academic style, full of overt symbols of death, religion and stereotyped female ideals. Did this represent her own perspective, or was it a (successful) attempt to tap into the fashion of the day with the Salon-going public interested in ‘tear-jerking subjects and dazzling technical bravura’? It is interesting to note that her Study for the convalescent is more spontaneous, less idealised and more realistic.

Head and shoulders of a sick child, looking away to the right of the frame. Eyes almost rolling back into the head. Hair tousled.

Jenny Nyström is an example of a woman who was talented artistically and also showed great business acumen, turning her prolific hand to the types of works that could sell and support her family.