The Art of Anders Zorn 1: Portraits of success

Anders Zorn, Castles in the Air (1885), watercolour on paper, 37 x 26 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. WikiArt.

The story of the career of Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860–1920) isn’t quite rags-to-riches, but he was born to an unmarried mother, and never even met his father, a Bavarian brewer who met her when she was doing seasonal work in a brewery in Uppsala. Zorn was brought up on the family farm near the village of Mora, in Dalarna, central Sweden. His itinerant father died in 1872, providing his son with a small legacy which enabled education at a grammar school in the distant town of Enköping.

While he was there, Zorn must have showed artistic talent, as in 1875, at the age of only fifteen, he won himself a place to study sculpture at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. He left the beautiful rolling lakelands of Dalarna for the crowded capital. It was there that he discovered that watercolour painting was his forte, and he quickly established himself a reputation as a brilliant painter. Among his friends there was the young Bruno Liljefors, who was to become one of the finest wildlife artists in Europe.

Zorn’s breakthrough also came early, in 1880 when King Oscar II of Sweden was among those wanting to purchase his work. As the painter was establishing himself as a portraitist, the following year he came into conflict with the conservative attitudes of the Academy’s Director, and dropped out of his studies. He met and later married Emma Lamm, whose upper middle class background must have brought Zorn clients.

Inspired by the life and work of the older Swedish artist Egron Lundgren (1815-1875), Zorn decided to travel, and headed first to London and Paris before going on to Spain, where he arrived in late September 1881. He spent six months there, mainly in the cities of Seville and Cádiz. One of his watercolour double-portraits from the latter city was accepted for the Salon in Paris in 1882, where it started to develop his international reputation.

Anders Zorn (1860–1920), Beggar in Seville (1881), watercolour on paper, 38 x 22 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Painted when Zorn was in Spain, this Beggar in Seville (1881) demonstrates his skill with watercolour. Apparently painted briskly but without effort, his loose brushstrokes, use of reserved space and white gouache for brilliant highlights, and wet-in-wet at the right are exemplary. Like his contemporaries Joaquin Sorolla and John Singer Sargent, his virtuoso style always looks so effortless, and Zorn did attract some criticism for what appeared to be too casual for some.

Anders Zorn (1860–1920), The Letter (1882), watercolour on paper, 26 x 35 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Even in his early paintings such as The Letter from 1882, he captures the complex folds and textures of fabrics and garments superbly. This young woman’s face is partially obscured, but still conveys her inner tension.

In the autumn of 1882, Zorn was back in London, where he set up his studio in fashionable Mayfair and was soon busy painting portraits of wealthy Nordic families in the city. He returned to Sweden in the summer of 1883, when he also exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, and visited Madrid the following year.

Anders Zorn (1860–1920), The Bride Book (1883), watercolour on paper, 58 x 38.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Zorn painted The Bride Book (1883) during his summertime back in Sweden that year, when he must have returned to Mora. This woman doesn’t appear to be wearing local bridal costume, though.

He didn’t confine himself to portraiture when in Britain: during the winter of 1883-84, he stayed in the picturesque village of Clovelly in Devon, and the following year visited Yorkshire.

Anders Zorn (1860–1920), Girl Playing a Mandolin (1884), watercolour on paper, 49.5 x 31 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Girl Playing a Mandolin was most probably painted when Zorn was in Madrid in 1884, judging by its date and the brilliant light. The instrument shown is a traditional bowlback mandolin, which was most popular in Italy, but also played widely in Spain and Portugal.

While he was in London, he started to learn techniques of etching, before packing up his London studio in June 1885 and returning to marry Emma Lamm in Stockholm that October. She wasn’t prepared to keep house for him, but assumed the role of his critic, manager and administrator, and was responsible in large part for her husband’s increasing success.

Anders Zorn (1860–1920), The Love Nymph (1885), watercolour and gouache on paper, 106.5 x 64.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

When Zorn was still a student in 1879, he painted a copy of Julius Kronberg’s Wood Nymph and Fauns (1875), which features a reclining nude. In 1885, he based his first original painting of a nude, The Love Nymph on that. This is one of at least two similar versions; the other is reversed and more obviously set in a studio, rather than fantasy woodland. Zorn’s model was Mary Smith, who appears in other paintings of his, including one of her in a pleasure boat on the River Thames in the summer.

Anders Zorn, Castles in the Air (1885), watercolour on paper, 37 x 26 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. WikiArt.
Anders Zorn (1860–1920), Castles in the Air (1885), watercolour on paper, 37 x 26 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. WikiArt.

As with many artists of the day, Zorn painted some Japoniste works, including this parasol portrait, Castles in the Air, also from 1885.

After their wedding in the autumn of 1885, the Zorns went on an extended honeymoon – which nearly cost him his life.


The Zorn Museum site; if you ever get a chance to visit this museum, it has a superb collection of his works, and much more.

Cederlund J, Brummer HH, Hedström P and Ganz JA (2013) Anders Zorn. Sweden’s Master Painter, Skira. ISBN 978 0 8478 4151 6.
Sandström B (2005) Anders Zorn, Nationalmuseum and NOK, Sweden. ISBN 978 9 127 11172 1. (In Swedish.)