In 2014, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco presented "Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter," They brought together one hundred of the artist’s oil paintings, watercolors, etchings, and sculptures. Anders Zorn (1860–1920) was one of the world’s most famous living artists at the turn of the twentieth century, known for his virtuoso painting and printmaking techniques.
Anders Zorn was born in Mora, Sweden, in 1860, in very humble circumstances. He was the illegitimate son of a German brewer and a local farmer’s daughter. His parents never married but he was acknowledged and allowed to carry his father’s name.
He studied at the Stockholm Royal Academy of Art, but left before graduation to launch what would become a successful international career.
At the Student exhibition in 1880, Zorn showed the watercolor “In mourning “ (on display in the show), which propelled him into the spotlight.
It was his facility in watercolor, his assured command of that difficult medium’s luminosity and transparency that brought him early fame.
Zorn watercolors such as "Lapping Waves" (1887), "In the Port of Hamburg" (1890) and "Sea Study" (1894) showcase his dazzling talent. Light and water dance across the paper in a seamless whole. His delicate touch is even more apparent in the forest scenes where layers of layers of green, pricked out by details of leaves and branches leave the viewer asking, “How in the world did he do that?”
He moved to London in 1882 and later to Paris (1888) where he reinvented himself as an oil painter and etcher, won a first class medal at the Exposition Universalle of 1889, and was decorated with the prestigious Legion d’Honneur.
Like Sargent, portraying the society dames and potentates of the Gilded Age gave him the financial stability to live life the way he wanted to.
Eventually he crossed the Atlantic seven times where he became as famous as any 20th century rock star. A 1901 headline in the Minneapolis Journal proclaimed, “Zorn’s Brush: its Magic Frequently Brings the Owner $15,000 a Week.” He painted portraits of the rich and famous including three American presidents, Grover Cleveland, William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.
The show at the Legion displayed these portraits in all their bravura glory. Colin Bailey, the late Director of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco described his brushwork as loaded with “sprezzatura,” a term used by Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier” to mean "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it."
Zorn does make it look easy, largely using a limited color palate of white, ochre, vermillion and black.
He was also an etcher, drawer, sculptor, and designer. The show has a few small pieces of his sculpture but it’s his etching that, like his watercolors, dazzle. He was one of the great modern etchers with a facility equaling Whistler in his technical skill for suggesting texture, atmosphere and psychological truth in black and white line. His brilliant handling of the tools of etching made for works that display pure chiaroscuro.
Zorn also had an eye for the ladies sans clothing. A small but select section of the show wasdevoted to his nudes. There is not an anorexic, silicone pumped stick in the lot. His models were taken from his native town of Mora, Sweden. He was a specialist in portraying their full bodies, soft buttocks and breasts and silken, silvery warm Scandinavian skin. Often set in water scenes, Zorn was able to explore his fascination with water and the reflections of light on its surface as well as pretty women.
Emma Zorn survived her husband by more than two decades. She remained in their home in Mora and maintained his legacy until her death, in 1942. In their joint will the couple bequeathed almost their entire fortune to the Swedish state, including more than sixty buildings and some twenty thousand objects. The Zornsamlingarna (Zorn Collections), as the donation is known, comprise the museum and house, the open-air museum, and Gopsmor. It is today among the most beloved and respected art institutions in Sweden.
Because of that, we can enjoy these works which otherwise might have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Zorn was neither an Impressionist nor a modern painter like Matisse (who also has a small show up at the Legion). He followed a different but equally valuable artistic path.