How is it that Anders Zorn (1860-1920), one of the most acclaimed portrait painters of his era, has been all but forgotten? That will likely be changed by a new show at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Anders Zorn: A European Artist Seduces America.
Born in Mora, Sweden, Anders Zorn was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm at the age of 15. He exclusively pursued watercolor until switching to oil painting in 1887. One of his earliest oil paintings, Fisherman in St. Ives, was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1889 where it was purchased by the French state. Shortly thereafter, Zorn has awarded the Legion of Honour.
When Anders Zorn travelled to the United States in 1893 to exhibit in Chicago's World Columbian Exposition, his submission, Omnibus Paris, was bought by Isabella Stewart Gardner. The first Zorn painting to be purchased in the U.S., Omnibus Paris shows a day-dreaming young woman clasping a hatbox as she rides a Parisian omnibus, a rail-based horse car. Zorn's power is immediately apparent - whatever transfixes this woman engages the viewer, too.
Anders Zorn. Omnibus Paris, 1892, second version. Oil on canvas. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA.
The livliness of Zorn's thick, energetic brushwork captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, making Zorn one of the most sought after portrait painters at the turn of the 20th century. Between 1890 and 1914, for example, Anders Zorn had works included in 70 shows within the German Empire.
He competed for society portrait commissions with John Singer Sargent, who also was
championed by Isabella Stewart Gardner. Both Sargent and Zorn were commissioned for portaits of her, with wildly different results.
Ander Zorn's Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner captures her in a Venice palazzo where she seems ready to embrace the viewer with her outstretched arms. She is both ageless and vital, radiating congeniality. Sargent's Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner wasn't so well received, and has shielded from public display.
Anders Zorn painted numerous industrialists, politicians, and bankers as well as two sitting presidents, Grover Cleveland, whose portrait is at the National Portrait Gallery,and William Taft, whose portrait hangs in the White House.
Anders Zorn. Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, 1894. Oil on canvas, approximately 36" by 30". Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.
Oliver Tostmann, the curator of Anders Zorn: A European Artist Seduces America, notes that Anders Zorn was "too young to be an Impressionist, too old to be a Modernist".
True enough. But the real question is how one of the best known portrait painters could've been forgotten... especially in light of these captivating works.