In the 1880s, the great Swedish watercolourist Anders Zorn (1860–1920) doesn’t seem to have spent a full year in any one place. In 1887, he spent the summer back in Sweden while simultaneously exhibiting at both the Salon in Paris and the Royal Academy in London. That autumn/fall, he and his wife travelled to Britain with the artist Alice Miller. It was there that he started to paint in oils.
Although Zorn’s early oils from his stay through the winter in the art colony and fishing village of Saint Ives, in Cornwall, were impressive, this watercolour is perhaps the most brilliant of his paintings from that visit. He had apparently become fascinated by this “plump fisherman’s wife” shown dragging some of the catch of fish around as it was being sold off on the beach.
The broken reflections of the fishing boats and the small breaking wave continue his fascination with water that he had developed painting during summers in the Stockholm archipelago.
His transition to oils was assisted by those in the art colony: the American artist Edward Simmons, for instance, guided him to using a restricted palette based on white, black and ochre, to which the Swede added red. However, his wife and greatest critic Emma wasn’t impressed with his oil paintings at that time, and still preferred his masterly watercolours.
In the Spring of 1888, the Zorns moved to Paris, where they later moved to Montmartre. For the first time since they had married, they settled down here until 1896. His mission in Paris was to paint the rich and famous, and he soon made the necessary contacts needed to become one of the leading portraitists in the city. He also made friends with fellow artists, including Renoir and Degas, but most of all with Swedish expatriates such as Prince Eugen and Carl Larsson.
Zorn quickly became fluent in oils, and was able to offer a range of styles in both watercolours and oils, as appropriate to each commission. This wonderful watercolour double-portrait of The Schwartz Girls from 1889 is flowing and free, while his more formal oil portraits could be crisp and tight.
This dazzling fan from the same year shows a pair of Bathers, apparently painted in oils. This is one of the few fan paintings by a major artist which bears the marks for folding and mounting in the slats of a real fan.
Zorn’s big breakthrough occurred at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where he was awarded a first class medal. Following that he was in even greater demand for portrait commissions. He still returned periodically to Sweden, though, to paint more rural and genre works.
In Baking Bread, painted back home in Mora, Sweden, in 1889, Zorn captures each step in the process in documentary fashion, from kneading the dough, through rolling and preparing it, to its baking. There’s even an infant in the foreground who looks ready to consume it. This is painted in his characteristic limited palette derived from his early oils in Saint Ives.
This Self-portrait from about 1889 shows another characteristic feature of these more mature paintings: edge control and hierarchy, which he uses to draw attention to different passages.
In the summer of 1890, he was back in Mora, where he painted this loose oil sketch of Mora Church, as if he needed to demonstrate his versatility across the genres.
While they were back in the Nordic countries that summer, the Zorns took a cruise up the coast of Norway to visit the most northerly point of mainland Europe, where he painted North Cape with the Midnight Sun, completed on 6-7 July 1890. This may give the impression of being finely detailed, but is in fact quite a quick oil sketch, in which his paint is often applied so thinly as to barely cover the ground.
At the end of that year, the Zorns visited Germany.
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.)