When you can paint a picture of U.S. President William Howard Taft that gives the sense of a powerful man without drawing undue attention to his enormous girth, clearly you know what you are doing. Today he may not be a household name to many, but Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860-1920) was a major painter at the turn of the previous century. He produced stunning portraits of kings and presidents, heiresses and robber barons, and famous figures of the Gilded Age both in America and in Europe, so that his waiting list of potential clients read like a who’s who of society around 1900.
Now in a major retrospective of his work at the National Academy in Manhattan, contemporary audiences will have the chance to explore the work of this great portraitist, as well as his lush landscapes, images of everyday people engaged in daily activities, and fetching nudes of beautiful women. Although he loved his native Sweden and returned to it again and again for inspiration, Zorn was a truly international painter, in an age when travel had become comparatively easier, but still involved major time commitments. Nevertheless, he managed to set up his easel in New York, Istanbul, Paris, or Madrid with as much work waiting for him in those cities as he would have had at home in Stockholm.
One of my favorite gifts this past Christmas, as it happens, was a catalogue of Zorn’s work. Page after page of reproductions shows how much he loved and returned to certain themes throughout his life as an artist. He enjoyed trying to capture the inner drive of powerful men in an appealing way, even if the subjects themselves were never going to win any beauty prizes. He appreciated the female body, and did not try to over-idealize his nudes, but he also showed how drapery can enhance a woman’s appearance, rather than concealing it. And his paintings of his wife, children, and self-portraits show a man who as time went on, became increasingly confident with his technique, establishing moods and expressions, lights and shadows, with a rapidity that hovered somewhere between Old Masters of the 17th century and the Impressionists.
Zorn’s wife Emma was, in many ways, the impetus for her husband’s success. The two met one evening in 1881 when Emma was babysitting one of her nephews, whose portrait Zorn had been commissioned to paint. They both later claimed that they knew that evening that this was “it”, but they had to wait several years for Zorn to convince Emma’s parents that he would be a stable provider for their daughter. Emma came from a wealthy Jewish merchant family in Stockholm, and once they married she introduced the illegitimate farm boy from rural Sweden to the glamour of international travel, literature, and the arts in such a way that he took to the world of cafe society like a fish to water. At the same time, he encouraged her philanthropic efforts to help the poor and uneducated back in their native Sweden.
Beyond his beautiful portrait and figural work however, Zorn is an artist worth discovering for his love of the natural world: particularly water, forests, and the presence of human effort to try to tame or at least make better access to the landscape. He was particularly adept at evoking that sense of cool stillness one associates even with modern Swedish art and design, which is never frigid but never overheated, either. There is the sense of an intellect at work in his painting, be the scenery in Italy, Spain, or North Africa, along with that deep connection to nature that one associates with the Swedish temprament.
“Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter” is at the National Academy in New York from February 27th through May 18th, and features an accompanying exhibit of some of Zorn’s American contemporaries and rivals, including John Singer Sargent, Augustus St. Gaudens, and others.