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The Comeback of Sweden's Master Painter

Published on
April 8

Although the Swedish Master Painter Anders Zorn (1860-1920) enjoyed conspicuous glory in America during his lifetime, today he is widely unknown among the general public. One of his paintings hangs on the walls of the White House in Washington DC as a trophy of the artist’s successful race to attain fame and fortune. The portrait of American President William H. Taft in the White House Collection certainly symbolizes the high stature Anders Zorn reached in the United States. In trips to New York, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, he portrayed many other prominent individuals. Among others were Presidents Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt, Taft's Vice President James Schoolcraft Sherman, and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. But his stardom did not last. While no other Swedish painter was treasured by America’s high society as Anders Zorn in those times, no other Master Painter was forgotten so quickly. 

In association with the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, The National Academy is bringing Anders Zorn back to the center stage. In doing so the institution is giving us the joy not only of the Master’s best portraits of America’s establishment, but also of his best down-to-earth watercolors and etchings. These rarely seen artworks show another facet of Anders Zorn that was overlooked by Americans 100 years ago: his mastery in capturing the natural and the quotidian. A boatman roaring across the bay of Istanbul, a herdsmaid coming out of the woods of Mora in Sweden, a brewer, a fisherman, and a flamenco dancer in Madrid, bring light and warmth to the brush of an artist mistakenly seen as only a society artist.

This major retrospective of painter Anders Zorn occupies two floors of the National Academy and features more than 90 works of the artist that are rarely seen in the U.S. The paintings are organized around themes instead of linear chronological order. Anders Zorn’s travels across Europe and Northern Africa are the backdrop of the first group of paintings of the exhibition. Early watercolors made during his honeymoon in Istanbul are the most exceptional of this gallery. “Caique Oarsman” (1886) stands out for the unusual angle of its composition. As observers we become the passengers of the boat. The gondolier wears a white turban and is laboriously rowing. We see the water shimmering in the back, almost blinding us, and we feel the warmth of the sunlight.

Zorn was the son of Grudd Andersdotte. Her family were farmers and she contributed to the family's income by working elsewhere. She had seasonal work in a brewery in Uppsala where she met the German brewer Leonhard Zorn, who became her son's father. They never married and Anders Zorn never met his father who died in Helsinki in 1872. But the son was acknowledged and allowed to carry his father's name. “Little Brewery”, “The Large Brewery” and “The old Rinse Shed” (all from 1890) portray the daily work of women in the brewery. Although the scenes must have brought him memories of his mother he does not treat them with sentimentality, but with grace. 

Anders Zorn’s hometown Mora, a small rural town in the Dalarna Region, is the scene of the last gallery. The largest and longest lakes and rivers of Sweden, deep forests, and quiet valleys surround the parish of Mora. The relative poverty and remoteness he grew up with as a child contrast with the connected wealthy man Anders Zorn became as a mature artist. Despite his success, he returned to his home. He acquired a vacant lot in 1886, designed his own house, and made it his permanent residence from 1896 until his death in 1920. “Herdsmaid” (1908) pays tribute to his origins, to the environment and inhabitants he would always return to. The painting is almost in monochrome green, with only the red dress and ribbon of the child contrasting again the woods and animals grazing in the grass. 

The comeback of Anders Zorn was long over due. Perhaps in America he will never obtain the prominence he had among the rich and wealthy of the Gilded Age but chances are the general public will fall in love with him for the first time. Just as I did. 

Photo: Caique Oarsman, 1886, watercolor, Zornmuseet, Mora