One hundred years ago today, one of the most successful Swedish artists of all time, and a leading portrait painter of his day, Anders Zorn died, at the age of only sixty. In this concluding article I look at what I consider to be his greatest art, in his paintings of ordinary people, particularly those living in and near his home town of Mora.
Like his contemporary Carl Larsson (1853-1919), Zorn was born into humble if not difficult circumstances. Larsson’s father was feckless, hard-drinking and abusive, and his mother worked long hours as a laundress to try to feed her family. He was brought up in a succession of slums in Stockholm Old Town, where infectious diseases were rife.
Zorn’s mother was unmarried, and he was the result of her brief affair with a Bavarian brewer, who never even saw his son. He was brought up on his mother’s family’s farm in a deeply rural part of central Sweden, near the small town of Mora in Dalarna.
Both Larsson and Zorn got their decisive break when they were accepted as students at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm, where they first met. Larsson was the first of the two to move to Paris, and trained in France from 1877-1885. Zorn preferred to keep his base in Sweden, and travelled from there throughout Europe, making his base in France between 1888-1895.
Like his contemporaries John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923), Zorn was adept at some of the most sophisticated techniques of rendering images in paint.
This Self-portrait from about 1889 shows one advanced feature of Zorn’s mature paintings: edge control and hierarchy, in which he uses the sharpness of edges to draw attention to different passages within the painting as a whole.
Painted when Zorn visited 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.
Zorn painted The Bride Book (1883) during the summer back in Sweden.
As his portraiture work was becoming successful, Zorn tackled this demanding motif on Dalarö in the Stockholm archipelago, which was to become one of his favourite seasonal locations. Zorn and his wife holidayed there in a small house rented by his mother-in-law. He concentrates here on the play of light on the water, fine detail in the small waves, and his precision in committing the scene in watercolour. His wife Emma was the model.
Our Daily Bread (1886) shows Zorn’s mother in traditional dress, sitting at the edge of a ditch as she cooks potatoes to feed the harvesters seen working hard in the distance. Although Zorn doesn’t appear to have been directly influenced by Jules Bastien-Lepage, who had died in France just two years earlier, this painting surely qualifies as being Naturalist.
Prior to 1887, Zorn had painted little in oils, and it wasn’t until he stayed in Saint Ives in Cornwall, England, that he made the transition to oils. Larsson painted more in oils during his early career, and was most successful in watercolours later on. Zorn developed his etching from 1890, while Larsson’s watercolours were later published in best-selling books.
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 oil paintings in Saint Ives.
Mora Fair, from 1892, is another of his masterworks showing life in the country town. Against a background of crowds and carts going to and leaving the fair, a young woman sits looking completely fed up. Not far from her feet, her partner is slumped face down amid the weeds, presumably from an excess of alcohol.
Zorn was particularly successful in the USA, where he attracted the attention and support of rich patrons, and made portraits of no less than three US Presidents. When he was staying with Isabella Stewart Gardner in a palace in Venice, he stole some time for some more serious painting, here showing The Lace Makers (1894).
His major painting of 1897 was Midsummer Dance, capturing festivities in his home town, with women and men dancing in their uniform country dress.
After great success at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, Zorn returned to Mora for the summer, where he painted this intimate portrait of A Mother and her Child (1900).
In the summer of 1901 he painted this Girl from Dalecarlia Knitting. ‘Cabbage Margit’ (1901), again in Mora.
Just before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 he painted this marvellous Dance in Gopsmorkate, in which he again captures the movement of these country people. As with so many of his paintings, its spontaneity is deceptive. He planned each painting meticulously, with thorough preparation, like a chess Grand Master thinking through their next move. Following this intense mental rehearsal, every brushstroke in the finished work had been laid in place in his mind; applying the paint was then a brief performance to complete the act of creation.
Anders Zorn earned a high reputation during his glittering career. He is a painter’s painter: every brushstroke is placed perfectly, his edges carefully unsharpened where needed to focus the painting perfectly, each painting perfectly composed, lit and coloured. For me, he’s one of the three masters who defined European painting around the start of the twentieth century.
Articles in this commemorative series
The context of Anders Zorn’s paintings in Sweden and beyond
1: Portraits of success
2: Far places and near death
3: Switching to oils
4: High life and low life
5: Portraits and prints
6: Presidents and Saunas
7: The White House and legacies
Cederlund J, Brummer HH, Hedström P and Ganz JA (2013) Anders Zorn. Sweden’s Master Painter, Skira. ISBN 978 0 8478 4151 6. (The perfect combination of excellent essays and superb illustrations, this large format book is the definitive modern account, although ostensibly just an exhibition catalogue. Highly recommended.)
Sandström B (2005) Anders Zorn, Nationalmuseum and NOK, Sweden. ISBN 978 9 127 11172 1. (A delightful little introduction, with plenty of good illustrations. In Swedish.)