He may not be a household name today, but Anders Zorn (1860-1920), the Swedish painter, was a rock star with an international reputation during his lifetime. He rivaled John Singer Sargent on these shores for prestigious portrait commissions and limned three Presidents—Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. Taft’s portrait hangs in the White House today.
A man of humble origins—the illegitimate son of a Bavarian brewer, who was raised on a farm in Mora, Sweden, by his maternal grandparents—he succeeded in transcending his roots while never betraying them. He is best known for his brilliant portraits (the King of Sweden, Andrew Carnegie, and numerous society figures), his depictions in watercolor of light on water and Orientalist themes (reminiscent of Sargent), his emulation of the Impressionists (think Manet in particular), and his etchings (Rembrandt provided the inspiration here).
The National Academy Museum, located in a Beaux Arts mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, touches all the bases in the first major retrospective in the U.S. of this artist’s work in more than a century. Anders Zorn: Master Swedish Painter comes to New York from San Francisco and runs for just a few more weeks until it closes on May 18. More than 90 rarely seen paintings, etchings, and sculptures are on display on two floors. The work—one masterful item after another—suits the setting.
Zorn was an indefatigable networker who was constantly working his contacts and seeking out new commissions from wealthy patrons. He traveled the world to feed his art and his connections. He favored European cities, Cornwall in England, Constantinople (now Istanbul), North Africa and the U.S., where he visited seven times and managed the Swedish art exhibition at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. There he met Boston art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, who after purchasing Zorn’s Omnibus (1892), a Manet-inspired painting of a Paris trolley, commented: “We’ll either be enemies quite soon or very, very good friends forever.”
They became fast friends. Zorn and his wife-and- frequent-model Emma visited Gardner the next year at the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice, where he famously painted Gardner in the doorway of the palace balcony after a fireworks show, arms outstretched to greet her guests. The painting is regrettably not part of the current show, though a memorable picture of her sitting in a Renaissance chair, hands and feet crossed, graces the exhibit room devoted to Zorn’s etchings.
Among the many standouts on view here are a series of en plein air nudes painted during summers on the island of Dalarö in the Stockholm archipelago. The subject was by no means original, but Zorn, with a bow to Gustave Courbet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, stripped away the usual mythological and allegorical trappings and focused on impressionistic depictions of ordinary women wading through water and navigating rocky shorelines—the first of his Nordic peers to do so.
Painting ripples and light’s reflection on water became an obsession. Perhaps the best example of his mastery of the technique is Summer Vacation (1886), a Dalarö watercolor with a rower poised to pick up an immaculately dressed tourist (Emma) standing on a dock. The figures are overshadowed by the vast expanse of the Baltic Sea that stretches behind them—countless, perfectly executed ripples glistening in the sunlight.
The Bosporus held equal sway with Zorn. Caique Oarsman (1886), with Topkapi Palace in the distant background, is another masterpiece in watercolor and calls to mind John Singer Sargent’s later Bedouin series in the same medium. It was painted during the Zorns’ honeymoon in Constantinople. But unlike Summer Vacation, the rower dominates the scene, with water and the sun’s rays playing secondary roles.
Zorn taught himself to paint with oils in the early part of his career, when he visited St. Ives in Cornwall and painted fishermen and his wife (Emma Zorn Reading, 1887). He wanted to paint like his heroes, Rembrandt and Velázquez. His portraits in oil, especially of Gilded Age Americans, caused his reputation to soar and won him friends and patrons around the world. This exhibit seeks to dust off his work and rejuvenate his reputation in the States. Judging by the crowd’s engagement with his paintings on a recent visit, it is succeeding.
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