Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter, Petit Palais, Paris, 15 September 2017 to 17 December 2017
It’s been exactly 111 years since Anders Zorn’s last major exhibition in Paris. Although nowadays Anders Zorn (1860–1920) is generally forgotten outside Scandinavia because of museum over-focus on French Impressionism, the Swedish artist was once one of the hottest items on the art market in London, Paris, New York and Chicago.
At the height of the American Gilded Age, the Belle époque in Paris and late Victorian England, Zorn painted the stars of the entertainment industry, affluent bankers, captains of industry, and no less than three successive American presidents: Grover Cleveland, William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. American high society became much enamoured of Zorn, and Zorn loved it back with diligent dedication, working day and night to meet his commission requirements. Having gone from rags to riches himself after a peasant upbringing in Dalecarlia, central Sweden, Zorn appreciated the self-made man atmosphere of the New World where new money and a quick run up the social ladder was nothing to be ashamed of. In America he rose to such prominence that before long he was neck-and-neck with John Singer Sargent for portrait commissions—no mean feat if you consider that Sargent was the pre-eminent and most sought-after portraitist of his time.
However Zorn’s international career was launched in London’s fashionable Mayfair where he settled for several years with his future wife Emma Lamm. It was thanks to this quickly acquired wealth that he was able to marry her in 1885 without incurring his affluent Swedish in-laws’ genteel disapproval.
His career thus passed swiftly from painting beggars to bankers, but his talent as a painter in both watercolour and oil pushed him in directions that exceeded the scope of Sargent’s monogeneric works. His most memorable paintings are those that depict life in Sweden, but his paintings of fishermen in St Ives also attracted the attention of the French state.
Zorn had a great affinity for the rendering of movement, drawing him naturally to the depiction of water and dancing. The impressionist touch he acquired during his stays in Paris in the 1880s and 90s enabled him to depict the free-flowing energy of folk dancing in a manner that bested photography. One of his contemporaries, the Norwegian Edvard Munch once said that photography was unable to rival painting in the depiction of Paradise and Hell. Using a motif that was also central to Munch’s work, Zorn proved the point in his Midsummer Dance (1897). Zorn blurs the ground in this painting, setting the grass alight with movement under the peasants’ dancing feet to convey the zest and joy involved in Maypole fertility rites. The rest of the painting is bathed in soothing Swedish evening light. Scandinavian summers with their never-ending evenings were ideally suited to the aspiring Swedish Impressionist much preoccupied with the subtle variations of light.
While he turned to Impressionist pleinairism in the late 1880s, a significant number of Zorn’s works, especially his later nudes, were however painted in his studio from photographs. Like many artists of the late nineteenth century (most especially Symbolists and Art Nouveau painters), Zorn was not averse to using photography to transcend it. While the philosopher Walter Benjamin and the painter Paul Delaroche tended to perceive photography as a threat to the prestige of painting, Zorn employed it as an aide rather than a hindrance.
Like other European Impressionists, Zorn’s subject-matter was resolutely contemporary. He eschewed both historical and mythological pretexts to foreground his nudes unashamedly. Whereas painters in England often emphasized mytho-historical narrativity, Zorn’s canvases often reduce narration to virtually nothing, stripping his figures of allusion and precise story-spinning context.
And yet, despite the pared down story-telling, many of Zorn’s paintings generate a potent sense of mystery. His dark, almost bullishly brooding self-portraits arrest the eye and leave you wondering. The same goes for works such as Midnight (1891). Related to James Tissot’s painting Young Woman in a Boat (1870) and Edouard Vuillard’s The Ferryman (1897), Midnight‘s depiction of the Scandinavian night light and the figure’s unreadable expression, create a foreboding sense of mystery, offering an intriguingly enigmatic rendering of the island motif. It greets you like a life-affirming Impressionist pendant to Arnold Böcklin’s Island of the Dead (1886).
Zorn’s relationship to Impressionism was however not entirely whole- hearted. While he soon adopted its loose brushstrokes – incurring the scorn of Scandinavian critics who read it as a sign of nonchalance – his figures retained a sculptural solidity and although blurring of faces and clothing does occur in some of his paintings, he never allows radical Impressionist blurring to gain the upper hand. His paintings are in many ways a delight to behold because they offer the pleasures of intricately defined detail and atmospheric soft focus combined.
To some extent, Zorn also refused the extremes of the Impressionist palette, rejecting the use of pure colour. Zorn is often remembered today in art schools and academic circles around the world for his restricted palette. Specialists believe that for the most part he had recourse to only four colours: ochre, cadmium red, ivory black and white. He stands out in art historical scholarship as a master of nuance: he was able to derive most of his tone gradations from a combination of these four colours, often using chromatic juxtaposition to offset and heighten his effects. Although even his blues are actually often ivory blacks thinned with white, he managed to make them look blue when they were spread alongside skin tones.
On occasion, he would add a dash of pure colour towards the end of the painting process to endow the work with an extra spark of life. On his death, however, several tubes of cobalt blue were discovered in his studio, indicating that he had recourse to that tube colour too on occasion.
Although he initially wanted to become a sculptor, Zorn quickly turned to watercolours following in the Swedish painter Egron Lundgren’s footsteps. His early work was somewhat in the manner of Sebastien Lepage and Jean-François Millet, French painters who also inspired other formidable Scandinavian artists, including the marvellous Finnish artist Axeli Gallen- Kallela. A kind of enchanted realism which portrayed poverty without making it seem abject. The light, feathery ethereality of wheat and sun- touched golden hair redeems such paintings as Our Daily Bread (1886) from miserabilism.
Other influences came from Northern Europe. There are traces of Rembrandt in both Zorn’s engravings and his self-portraits. Zorn learnt the art of eau- forte engraving from Axel Herman, a fellow Swede he met during his years in London, and he went on to be one of the most sought after European engravers, to the extent that the Paris National Library acquired most of his very considerable output in the genre. His engravings topped the bidding prices in both Paris and New York and he is now considered as a leading nineteenth-century innovator in the genre. Zorn’s ability to score his engravings with a myriad of diagonal scratch marks caused him to enter the somewhat rare category of Impressionist engraving. His mastery of the eau-forte technique was such that he was able to execute a portrait of Marcellin Berthelot in under twenty minutes.
Zorn’s last years were spent in the Darlarna region where he retired to draw, paint and engrave voluptuous nudes in a manner that is somewhat reminiscent of Renoir. His nudes are less steatopygous than Renoir’s gracefully clotted Venuses but they exude at least as much frothy vibrancy, offering nacreous glints and creamy invitation. In an oil painting like Reflections (1889), it isn’t just the nude that’s reflected in the water. The golden sand and the wavelets themselves find themselves mirrored in the female figure’s skin tones. One of Zorn’s professed aims was to make his subjects blend into their surroundings, a strategy which imbues his paintings with an inordinate sense of unity and grace.
The Petit Palais has not stinted on the means of enhancing this long overdue homage to Zorn’s artistic achievement. As always, the exhibition provides sumptuous decors erected specially for the purpose. A number of openings and oculi pierce the party walls of the rounded exhibition spaces to offer a beautifully breathing openwork design.
The exhibition culminates in a spacious room that reproduces part of Zorn’s house in Mora with its pointed Gothicizing windows and warm wooden panelling. It’s an exhibition well worth attending if you’re thinking of heading for Paris this autumn, and the permanent collection at the Petit Palais offers eye-opening treasures from the same fin-de-siècle period and beyond.
Erik Martiny teaches literature, art and translation to Chartes and Khâgne students at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris. His articles on contemporary art, fashion and literature have appeared in the TLS, Aesthetica, Fjords Review and Whitewall Magazine among others. His first novel The Pleasures of Queueing will appear this spring with C&R Press.