Masters: Sweden's Sargent

16 Jan 2007

0604zorn1_300x450_ab_1We went in search of Anders Zorn in his homeland and discovered a personality large enough to encompass numerous contradictions—and a natural ability to paint in both oils and watercolor.

by Bob Bahr

When Anders Zorn's name is mentioned in the United States, it is usually in connection with John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, contemporaries who also employed conspicuous brushwork and were known for their penetrating portraits of high-society figures. His fame in our country often comes from his inclusion in this group, but a closer look at the Swedish artist reveals a strong personality able to embrace what appear to be contradictions in his life and his painting process. The illegitimate son of a brewery employee, he grew up to socialize with kings and queens. Famous for the spontaneous feel of his paintings and his loose brushwork, Zorn painstakingly prepared for many of his pieces, on occasion drawing and painting numerous studies and using photographic reference. Outfitting his home with technological gadgets practically unheard of in Sweden in his time, he chose to paint in a small, rustic outbuilding nearly 700 years old. He quit the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, in Stockholm, rejecting the traditionalism of his teachers, only to later paint portraits of the Swedish establishment. And although Zorn traveled extensively in Europe and America, he returned most summers to his rural hometown.

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Miss Constance
Morris

1915, oil, 58¾ x
39.  Collection
Zornsamlingarna, Mora, Sweden.

Birgitta Sandström is the museum director of the Zorn Collections, which includes the artist's residence, estate, and museum in Mora, Sweden. This authority on Anders Zorn laughs at the puzzle of his contradictions, asserting that a man with such extreme confidence would see them simply as a matter of personal preference. Zorn was proud of his roots and certain of his stature as an artist, with the will to do whatever he wanted. "I don't think he had any problem speaking in Moran [the local dialect] with an old man from this area one day, then sitting down with a president the next," says Sandström. "He was fabulous in that way. It was a part of his personality." Zorn's blend of personality and ability made his an artist's life worth exploring.

Zorn's Life and Artistic Development
Zorn's mother met his father when they worked together in a brewery in northern Sweden. They never married, and because his mother worked away from Mora, Anders was raised by his maternal grandparents. As a boy, he learned to carve, which was typical in the province of Dalarna, in central Sweden. "It was not special that he carved, it was special that he had the talent to do something else with it," comments Sandström. Zorn's ability to sculpt and draw gained the attention of his teachers and his father's colleagues, and money was raised to send him to Stockholm to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. He studied there for five years, then rebelled against the increasingly traditional methods of the school, which emphasized drawing from prints, casts, and figures. His work was winning awards—particularly his masterful watercolors—but he was growing away from the school.

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The inside of
the studio
behind Zorn's
house in Mora,
built nearly 900
years ago.

At this time he fell in love with Emma Lamm, who came from a wealthy family. Lamm's family wouldn't consider a marriage between the two unless Zorn had a small fortune. So he quit the academy in dramatic fashion (urged on by repeated threats of expulsion from academy officials) and went abroad in 1881 to earn money, secretly engaged to Emma. "He already knew what he wanted to do," says Sandström. "What would have happened if he continued at the academy another year? He could not have accomplished any more."

England beckoned. In school, Zorn had grown fond of watercolor painting, and the best watercolorists in the world were English. There are no reports and no evidence that Zorn was taught the finer points of watercolor by any particular artist in England. This is a pattern repeated throughout Zorn's life: his artistic skills were largely self-taught, with one exception. Zorn acknowledged the instruction of Axel Herman Haig in etching, although Zorn's background in carving and drawing made him well equipped to excel in this technique. The artist was definitely aware of his proficiency. "He compared himself to Rembrandt in terms of etching—that shows what he aspired to," says Merit Laine, the curator of prints and drawings at the Nationalmuseum, in Stockholm. "He set himself a very high standard of excellence." Sandström pushes the point further with this quote from Zorn's autobiography: "There have always been two etchers, Rembrandt and myself. Well, actually, there has only been one." Zorn's affinity for Rembrandt manifested itself in a number of ways. He counted several drawings and etchings by Rembrandt in his personal collection, and he executed many self-portraits, as did the Dutch master. In 1890 he went so far as to copy a Rembrandt composition on the right side of an etching plate and etch his own self-portrait on the left. Their styles were quite different—Zorn's evolved into a method that emphasized loose, parallel hatching (sometimes resembling scribbled loops) and strong dark-light patterns, as in Zorn and His Wife. Rembrandt's etchings emphasized finer lines and texture achieved by more traditional means. Both built simple compositions on strong dark-light patterns.

0604zorn3_450x300_1
Our Daily Bread
1886, watercolor,
26¾ x 39½.
Collection
Nationalmuseum,
Stockholm, Sweden.

This painting is
considered iconic in
Sweden. It is
perhaps as
representative of
the national
character as
American Gothic, is
in this country.

Zorn's star quickly rose. An exhibition in Cádiz, featuring work he painted in the previous months in Spain, brought the painter international acclaim in 1882. Zorn moved to England, where members of Swedish high society commissioned portraits. His career gained momentum as wealthy Londoners commissioned the services of Zorn, and the King of Spain requested a portrait. His future success secured, he married Emma in October 1885. The couple honeymooned in Constantinople (where Zorn nearly died of typhoid fever), then visited Italy and France before moving to St. Ives, in Cornwall, England, in late 1887.

By this time, Zorn was a highly accomplished watercolorist—but he was ready to do more. That winter, he taught himself how to paint in oil. Considering his love for the medium of watercolor, his change in medium may seem odd. Quite the opposite, says Laine. "It would have been very strange if he had kept to watercolors," she remarks. "It was more prestigious to paint in oils." Zorn wrote about this transition in his autobiography with much nonchalance. "[St. Ives] was charming and we decided to stay there," Zorn recounted. "We got acquainted with this artist and rented a house. I began to paint at once and paint in oil. I thought I had some months free without having to think about an income." The French government soon bought one of these first forays into oil, Fishermen in St. Ives. Within about seven years Zorn had shifted his emphasis almost completely from watercolor to oil.

0604zorn4_450x300_1
New Year's Card
1890, etching, 4 x
5½.

Zorn likes to
compare himself to
Rembrandt as this
etching—in which he
paintined a
self-portrait on the
left and copied a
Rembrandt
composition on the
right—graphically
shows.

In 1888 the couple moved to France, where they would stay for eight years. Zorn continued to Spain, where he painted with Sorolla in a small Spanish town. The trio that many admiring painters today mention in the same breath knew one another, but they were hardly the three musketeers. Zorn was acquainted with Sargent from his long visits to England, and he liked to boast that Sargent considered him to be the superior portraitist of the two. But the lumping of Zorn with the other two famed portraitists of the age is an American invention done in retrospect. "Sorolla is hardly known in Sweden," asserts Sandström, "and only art historians know about Sargent. In Sweden, Zorn is enough."

Similarities do exist, however, especially between Sargent and Zorn. Both painted dynamic, urgent portraits of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Like Sargent, Zorn painted numerous portraits but would pick and choose his commissions and wouldn't hesitate to compose the portrait in an unconventional way. For instance, the perspective in Miss Constance Morris is puzzling, with the viewer's vantage point seemingly moving from the subject's eye level, to her waist, to her feet. The portrait Les Demoiselles Schwartz depicts two sisters peering around their easels at a bust they are drawing. In the book Swedish Painters in the World, by H.H. Brummer (Svalan/Bonnier, Stockholm, Sweden), Zorn is quoted, "There they sat, in front of their easels, wearing their red dresses and drawing a head I had given them as an assignment. I immediately drew some lines on my canvas to not lose what I had found. The next morning, the parents of the children came to visit. The lady asked me if I couldn't do the portrait in a landscape format instead, so that it would fit over her bed. I furiously asked her who the hell she thought I was, and if she were not aware of the fact that there was a photographer down the street who would be more suitable for her than an artist she would only bother! I threw my palette into a corner and explained to her that if she wanted me, Zorn, to paint, she had to say yes or say no and immediately leave the room so I could go on with my work. Terrified, and with tears running down her cheeks, she said yes and left the room. My wife later promised them I would do something special for them, and she was right. Any piece of crap would be special to mutts like such people and I would give them a couple of hours, nothing more! Funnily enough, the painting was one of my most saluted at the world fair that year."

Zorn painted the king and queen of Sweden and two U.S. presidents, plus a large number of powerful industrialists of that age. The impact of these commissions on Zorn's social standing and career is incalculable, but although Zorn seemed to be a careful career planner, he was no slave to the business of art. "He simply put up with commissions," Sandström says. "He once complained to Carl Larsson, 'Another commission—o, it is killing me!' But this is how he made his money. He never painted Rockefeller, although he was commissioned to do it, because he wanted to spend midsummer in Sweden. He had his limits. Swedish midsummer was more important to him than Rockefeller."

Zorn's Process and Materials
Many artists mention the concept of the "Zorn palette," especially in regard to portraiture. This warm palette, which is often said to include simply a yellow, black, red, and a white—but no blue—may be a very useful tool, but it is a mistake to attribute it to Anders Zorn. A few portraits and other paintings by Zorn seem to show a definite warmth and a lack of tube blues and greens—and Sandström confirms that the painter was proud of saying he mixed all of the hues on a canvas from just a handful of colors—but many Zorn paintings utilize blues. In fact, in Sweden Zorn is celebrated for his depictions of water, which required blue paint. Sandström had difficulty even comprehending the assumption that Zorn worked with the specialized palette associated with him. She reports that 17 tubes of cobalt alone are represented among the 243 tubes of paint left by Zorn in his studio in Mora. Laine, of Stockholm's Nationalmuseum, concurs that the notion of a Zorn palette is a bit of a misnomer. Still, portraits such as Miss Constance Morris show that he was adept at using grays to suggest blues. Many of Zorn's portraits—and his nudes—exhibit a compelling warmth, providing inspiration for today's painters regardless of what the Swedish artist may have actually squeezed onto his palette.

0604zorn5_300x450_1
Love Nymph
1885,
watercolor, 46 x
29.

Many of Zorn's
watercolors
were painted
quickly, but he
spent two years
painting this
piece, which he
considered his
masterpiece at
the time.

Zorn favored paints formulated by a now-defunct manufacturer in Berlin. He used brushes of all sizes and shapes, and all the brushes with manufacturer markings are of Swedish origin. In etching, he experimented with various acids that he understood Rembrandt to use, but his etching materials were essentially standard—executed on copper and occasionally zinc. Zorn created a few notable sculptures, including a well-known sculpture in Mora of King Gustav Vasa, who united Sweden in 1520 against the occupying Danes. But this early medium was pushed aside by painting. "He considered painting his work; etching and sculpting were his hobbies," says Sandström. "At night, when it was too dark to paint, he carved. During the day he didn't have time to continue sculpting." More than with other media, Zorn's etchings were informed by photography. An avid sailor, he would take models onto his boat and sail in Stockholm's archipelago, painting them on wooded islands and photographing them for etchings he would cut the following winter. Etchings also allowed him to replicate his popular paintings and thus generate more money from a composition.

Some of the detail in Zorn's early watercolors betray the hours of work he put into them—the 1885 watercolor Love Nymph reportedly took him two years to complete and required two versions in watercolor, one oil sketch, and more than 60 drawings, grisailles, and color sketches—but Emma Zorn wrote in 1887 that one watercolor constituted "a morning's work" for her husband. Zorn's method was to fix the composition clearly in mind before beginning, then get it on the page quickly. His oils suggest the same spontaneity, but Sandström says there's evidence that he occasionally would build up layers to achieve the effect he desired.

0604zorn6_300x450_1

Les Demoiselles
Schwartz

1889, oil, 39½ x
26½.
Collection the
Louvre, Paris, France.

Make it look easy—that seems to be the theme. "He had amazing drawing skills and could paint an effective portrait in 44 strokes," Wisconsin artist Jeffrey T. Larson says with a laugh. "He saw so clearly and composed so confidently—he had such an eye. As they say, he could use one sentence to explain what others would need half a book to explain." Larson appreciates Zorn's legendary limited palette, too. "It allowed him to make his paintings seem very unified," he says.

His portraits earned him worldwide fame, and his depictions of Swedish peasant life endeared him to his countrymen, but it is his landscapes—punctuated by figures—that inspire many of today's painters. Zorn disliked painting models in the artificial atmosphere of a studio. "His ability to capture the mood of a place with such subtle color and value only came from his countless hours painting outdoors from life," asserts Frank Serrano, a California plein air painter. "You can't convey in a painting that mood if you are using a photograph. He painted outdoors quite a bit. It's what helps you become acute and helps you learn how to capture something naturally. Those sensitivities are there in his work and that's what I really enjoy."

"He had guts," adds Larson. "Any artist looks at Zorn's work and sees that he put a note down and left it. He was not timid and he did not try to please anyone but himself."

Bob Bahr is the managing editor of American Artist.


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Comments

Vladimir wrote
on 26 Apr 2008 7:53 PM
Don't you mean Sargent is America's Zorn?