by Sura Wood
When he died in 1920 at the age of 60, Swedish painter Anders Zorn was one of the wealthiest men in Sweden. Having spent the better part of his career seducing and conquering the social elite on two continents with his charm and charisma, he accumulated his fortune by painting flattering portraits of the rich, famous and powerful who paid astronomical fees for the privilege. In 1901, he reportedly raked in $15,000 per week. But even after making seven trips to the U.S., during which time he captured three presidents for posterity – rough-and-ready Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Grover Cleveland – as well as imperious socialites and industrial magnates with fashionable wives who liked to flaunt their status, he never became as well-known in America as he did in Europe. Though his success is said to have rivaled that of his closest competitor, the older John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter, a new exhibition at the Legion of Honor, is only the second major retrospective of his work in this country in the last century. Its advent should help raise the profile of an artist who's largely a mystery to American audiences.
"Self Portrait with Model" (1896), the imposing painting which opens the show, is a fitting introduction to Zorn's world and his subdued palette of ochre, black, red and white, generous impasto and virtuoso brushwork that were his signature. He's seated in the foreground, a formidable presence dressed in a white smock, holding the tools of his trade in one hand, surrounded – nearly enveloped – by deep cavernous browns that summon references to Velazquez and Rembrandt, the artists he most admired.
Judging from this catalog of 100 paintings, prints and etchings, Zorn, if not the greatest artist of the 19th century, was an unparalleled schmoozer and boulevardier who moved with ease among artists, high society and the intelligentsia of Europe. But that doesn't mean that he wasn't serious about his art and methodical in his approach. He spent hours drawing his subjects in their homes before painting them in their natural habitats rather than in his studio. In his best-known work, Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of his most enthusiastic patrons, holds court in a creamy full-length gown, her arms barring the doorway of a dark-paneled, high-ceilinged room that led to the balcony of her Venetian palazzo. She's illuminated by a pool of light, red flowers scattered at her feet, like a goddess descending or an opera diva taking a curtain call.
"Elizabeth Sherman Cameron" and "Mrs. Richard Howe," two beautiful pictures painted in 1900, appear vain and smug, a pair of expensively dressed, cool customers living in gilded cages. Cameron evidently detested the final product and wasn't shy about voicing her displeasure. Generally, though, the portraits present the sitters as they wish to be seen, conveying their sense of entitlement by virtue of money and position, while offering attitude but scant insight into what lay behind the mask.
In 1888, Zorn moved to Paris, where he spent the next decade. There he was influenced by Impressionism, especially Manet, who favored scenes of urban ennui similar to Zorn's "Omnibus" (1891-92), a distinctly French portrait that focuses on a weary working-class millinery girl in transit on that great equalizer, Parisian public transport. Degas' sensuality and sensitivity to movement and feminine grace are apparent in the lovely 1892 watercolor "Reveil, Boulevard Clichy," where a young woman leans forward, extending her torso and alabaster arm over billowing white fabric like a dancer stretching at the ballet bar; and a series of nude bathers painted en plein air during the mid-1890s owe a debt to Renoir.
Although Zorn demonstrates admirable technique in his oil paintings, he flirts with greatness in his watercolors, which are the true revelation of the exhibition. Some were painted during sojourns to Greece, Italy, Turkey, Portugal and Spain. Algeria is the setting of "Man and Boy" (1887), in which the oceanic blues of horizon and sea contrast with bleached white seawalls and the turbans and robes worn by two wayfarers who have paused to take in the view. But Zorn's mastery and phenomenally realistic presentation of the alchemy of light, color and water are astonishing, especially because watercolor is a notoriously difficult medium to control. His renderings of people and the rippling reflections and transparency of bodies of water are so true-to-life it's uncanny. It's speculated that Zorn frequently used photography in his practice. Many of the watercolors have never been seen in the U.S., and they shouldn't be missed.
In the show's final work, "Self-Portrait in Red"(1915), created five years before his death, the artist poses in a rustic barn. Decked out in a smart, robin-red, three-piece suit tailored to accommodate his expanding girth, he's the very image of the fat cats who made him rich. The portrait merges his humble peasant beginnings – the poor art-school dropout who started out in woodcarving – with the prosperous self-made man in the lap of luxury. Zorn lived hard and well, traveling constantly, indulging in smoking, gluttony and dancing, but it's the latter that probably did him in.