Anders Zorn (1860–1920)
One hundred years ago, Anders Zorn (1860-1920) was among Europe’s most celebrated artists. Kings, presidents, bankers and cultural figures lined up to have their portraits painted by the Swede, and his etchings commanded prices higher than almost any other artist.
Childhood and youth
Zorn’s life began in the little town of Mora in the Dalarna region of Sweden, where he grew up under humble circumstances on a small farm, raised by his mother and grandparents. His father was a German master-brewer, Leonard Zorn, whom he never met. After studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm from 1875 to 1881, and a six-month trip to Spain, he began his profession as a watercolor painter in London, specializing in portraits.
In 1885, Zorn returned to Sweden to marry Emma Lamm (1860-1942), whom he had met while a student in Stockholm. The newlyweds spent their summers on Dalarö in Stockholm’s archipelago, a fashionable seaside resort, where Zorn dazzled the public with his watercolor technique—especially his ability to capture the play of light on water.
In the winter of 1887-88, Zorn began to paint in oil, and in 1889, he made his breakthrough at the World’s Fair in Paris. The Swede was awarded a first class medal and was decorated with the most prestigious order in France, the Legion of Honor.
Famous portrait painter
Zorn achieved his greatest international success as a portrait painter. He was especially in demand in the USA, where the generation of gilded Americans was willing to pay record-breaking sums for portraits by him. Zorn visited America seven times, and painted approximately one hundred portraits there, including three presidents. After meeting Isabella Stewart Gardner at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Zorn became a close friend of the idiosyncratic art collector who went to build her own museum in Boston. Zorn’s portrait of Mrs. Gardner, along with other of his works, still belongs to her museum.
The 1889 World’s Fair had also signaled a major breakthrough for Zorn as a plein-air painter. The public acclaimed his pictures of women bathing nude, mostly painted in the Stockholm archipelago. The theme of nudes in the outdoors was not new, but Zorn brought a new sensuality to the genre by ushering his models out into nature, away from the studio, depicting them wading in water and moving with grace among the rocky shorelines and trees.
Back to Mora
In 1896, after eight years in Paris, Anders and Emma Zorn moved home to Sweden and Mora. Zorn’s international connections did not cease to be active, however. Until the First World War, he found himself travelling every year, typically in the spring. He continued to receive new portrait commissions and regularly took part in exhibitions in France, Germany and the United States. In a large solo exhibition at the Galeries Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1906, he was hailed as one of the greatest artists of his time and was compared with the acclaimed Spaniard Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida and the American John Singer Sargent.
In Mora, Zorn devoted himself increasingly to a third subject area, the depiction of folk life in Dalarna. His portrayals of ordinary people from his native area represent a rural culture resistant to change. The basic mood in his work is a calm and gentle approach to everyday subjects.
Zorn’s success as an artist was not only based on his paintings and watercolors. He was also a brilliant etcher. Zorn had learned etching techniques in London in the early 1880s from a Swede, Axel Herman Haig, 25 years his senior. He began tentatively, investigating and experimenting with the plate to understand the technique’s possibilities, yet it wasn’t long before his handling of the etching needle won him fame. After some years Zorn learned how to achieve dramatic effects of light and shade with squalls of lines, and used these to create his own unorthodox, impressionist style.
During the last years of his life, Zorn’s health deteriorated quickly, partially the consequence of his intensely lived life. He died in Mora, 22 August 1920 and was buried in the graveyard of Mora church.