If you haven't had an opportunity to see the works of Anders Zorn in person, you might want to get a copy of the exhibition catalog for a show of his work at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The book, Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter is a treasured addition to our art reference library.
Zorn was both a friend and friendly competitor of John Singer Sargent, and they both vied for portrait painting commissions in the same high-society circles of the day. Reading about their parallel working lives, one is struck by the notion that they seem to have been motivated to out-do each other in their creative efforts in painting.
|Portrait of Mrs. Bacon by Anders Zorn, 1897, oil painting.|
Zorn recalled a conversation he had in 1897 with the railroad tycoon Edward Rathbone Bacon: "He said he wanted me to paint his sister-in-law (Virginia Purdy Bacon) better than Sargent had painted her for George Vanderbilt." Mr. Bacon didn't know that Zorn had already painted her once, in Paris. "And Mrs. Bacon told me about my first portrait that when Sargent was going to paint her, he asked to see my work, but had been refused and only been allowed to see it when he had finished his, whereupon he ran a poker through his canvas. So she had to sit for another one."
They both admired and emulated the portrait painting techniques of Velasquez, and in the words of artist Axel Reinhold Lindholm: "It is no paradox when I say that when Zorn painted carefully, he painted quickly. Each brushstroke was precisely calculated before being executed. First the hand described the motion in the air, and then the stroke was performed with style and confidence. Despite alterations caused by the model's movements, Zorn never painted anything haphazardly."
Like Sargent, Zorn was remarkably gifted at an early age, excelling in watercolors before he turned his hands to oil painting. He was able to deftly reproduce in oil the lush and loosely stroked brushwork that eventually made his watercolors famous. Beyond the technical aspects of craft, it was Zorn's brilliant and discerning vision coupled with his ability to state something universally understood about the human condition in his work that makes it so appealing even today.
|Reveil by Anders Zorn, 1892, watercolor painting.|
Zorn became well known in Paris and London before making his mark in the United States. In 1893 he traveled to the U.S. as the superintendent of the Swedish Exposition at the Chicago World's Fair, an exposition that introduced to America the best of Swedish art, 151 pieces in all, including numerous paintings by Zorn. He used the opportunity of this lengthy stay to garner portraiture commissions and build his reputation among the elite of the Gilded Age, including with portraits of Presidents Cleveland and Taft. It was at the World's Fair that he met and subsequently became a friend of Isabella Stewart Gardner, who also collected Sargent's work. During our recent trip to Boston, we made a point of visiting her home again, now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, to see her collection of Zorn and Sargent paintings. Zorn's 1894 portrait of Mrs. Gardner in Venice is stunning for its spontaneous pose and remarkable lighting. She appears to have been caught in a single moment as she spun around to exclaim about the fireworks outside the window.
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–John and Ann