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art review

Seeing Zorn once again as a ‘Prince of Art’

Detail of an 1894 portrait of Frieda Schiff by Anders Zorn.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Detail of an 1894 portrait of Frieda Schiff by Anders Zorn.

Like Zorro with a paintbrush, Anders Zorn inveigled his way into European high society of the 1880s with his fresh, fluent, flyaway style — swish, swish! — turning out paintings, watercolors, and etchings of almost outlandish virtuosity.

His formula, when you think about it, was pitch-perfect: naked, nubile Swedes cavorting in nature; pearl-draped Society Hostesses and bewhiskered Men of Stature; earthy Nordic rural Scenes; and a calculated dash of Belle Epoque Paris.

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With this brilliantly diversified product, an object lesson in how to win friends and influence peers, Zorn made his way into the world from Mora, his small, lakeside hometown, smack-bang in the center of Sweden.

Then in the 1890s, he came to America with a simple message: Swedes do it better.

A ravishing new show at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum suggests he had a good case. Zorn’s mission here (it feels indecorous to say it openly, but it’s surely true) was to out-paint, out-ingratiate, and generally out-razzle-dazzle his (notionally) American rival, John Singer Sargent.

Yes, they were different, in important ways, as the Gardner people are at pains to point out. But both Sargent and Zorn were tonal painters in the tradition of Diego Velazquez. In an industrial age, when the lines between new money and old were beginning to blur, they were also courtiers to wealth, in the tradition of Van Dyke.

Both were exhaustingly peripatetic (although Zorn, with his annual returns to Mora, was more rooted). And both were unconscionably gifted, much better, in fact, than the bulk of their legacy — puffed up as it is with a superabundance of obsequious society “paughtraits” (Sargent’s coinage) — would tend to indicate.

Zorn, like Sargent, became a favorite of Isabella Stewart Gardner. She bought his masterpiece “The Omnibus” when he exhibited it at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. They became acquainted and carried on a friendship and correspondence that lasted almost three decades.

He painted her portrait, as visitors to the Gardner will know, and the finished article is the most flattering description of Mrs. Jack that we have. See her now on the balcony of the Palazzo Barberini in Venice, returning to her guests from the balcony overlooking the Grand Canal in a state of girlish intoxication, narrow of hip, bold of bust, slender arms akimbo (“Stay just as you are!” the redoubtable Swede is supposed to have said). Fireworks (plash, ka-boom!) light up the sliver of sky behind her and skitter along the canal.

The result — admit it — is not only lovelier but livelier, more dashing than Sargent’s rather laborious effort to similarly honor his patron.

Except in Sweden, where he is revered — just as Sargent is immoderately adored here — Zorn has largely been overlooked since his death in 1920 at 60. From being a “Prince of Art,” as he was described by a New York newspaper in 1900, he watched his carefully constructed reputation collapse in his final years, as new, more modern-looking edifices rose all around.

His problem? In short, virtuosity.

In an era that was starting to gag from a surfeit of slickness, Zorn was like the quivering crème brûlée at the end of a heavy meal. The world was hankering after less lavish forms of nourishment, aesthetic visions more awkward, gauche, and gangly. Enter Cezanne, Gauguin, and Matisse.

But a century later, and after several decades spent valorizing “bad painting,” my guess is that we can begin to relate differently to Zorn’s facility now. Yes, we can still see the slickness, the almost theatrical display of insouciance failing to disguise ferocious calculation (if you think I’m exaggerating, check out Zorn’s self-portraits). But we might allow ourselves more easily to marvel.

In the Gardner show, compiled by the museum’s new curator Oliver Tostmann, look closely at “The Ice Skater,” a big picture painted in Sweden in the winter of 1898. It’s been sent to the show from the Zorn Museum in Mora (an enchanting place; I’ve been there). There’s a kind of genius to it: a middle-aged female skater, wrapped in dark, heavy clothes, her hand pressed into a pocket, is shown mid-stride on the cold ice of Lake Siljan.

Pictures of skaters in the better known Dutch tradition trigger coos of appreciation for winter’s bracing intimacy, and for the communal cuteness of sleds, mittens, and earmuffs. Here, Zorn gives us something completely different, an everyday image that nonetheless conveys shuddering cold, enveloping darkness, and a spiritual loneliness you may ultimately have to be Scandinavian to comprehend.

It’s a very different picture to Sargent’s masterpiece, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” but it makes similarly bold use of empty space. Note the unsettling asymmetry of the composition, and, even more, the destabilized perspective. We, the viewers, don’t seem to be anywhere quite plausible in relation to her. But it’s all moving so fast — who can say?

It’s an image of zigzags, blanketing blacks and grays, and spiritual precariousness. Zorn described it as his “least glorious” painting, and lamented its lack of recognition: “[I] seem to be the only one who appreciates it,” he said.

“Omnibus,” which shows a row of seated passengers of various classes crammed into a bus, is a superb painting. You can see why Gardner lunged at it. It’s two paintings, really: Zorn did a version for his French audience, and a second version for an American audience. That second version is the one that ended up in the Gardner’s collection, where it has been recently conserved. The first is in Stockholm’s National Museum.

Tostmann’s great coup is to have both versions side by side for the first time. The original is sketchier, more contracted — and more in line with “advanced” Parisian tastes. By 1891, when Zorn begain painting it, the French had already had three decades to get used to the unfinished, tonally abrupt painting style of Manet, and almost as long to accustom themselves to the idea of contemporary urban subject matter. (One of Zorn’s most important early patrons, as Tostmann points out in the catalog, was Antonin Proust, Manet’s friend since boyhood and his first biographer: It was a connection freighted with significance for Zorn).

If Zorn felt American audiences were more conservative, and still expected from their leading painters clearly defined facial expressions rather than desultory dabs, he was no doubt right. But that doesn’t mean he scaled back his ambitions.

The second version may be painted in a more conservative idiom, but it is clearly the superior picture. Zorn expanded the space slightly: We now see the tops of the bus’s window frames, the ceiling, and the cropped body of a passenger sitting closest to us. Through the window there are legible signs of life on the street outside.

But, setting aside style, there are two even more conspicuous changes: The first is the introduction of a bold oblong of light that cuts across the body of the central figure (a female passenger whose expression is impeccably modern: that is to say, blank, disengaged, scrupulously attentive to her own inner drama).

The second is Zorn’s transformation of the box on her lap, which dominates the first composition, into a cylindrical container that blends more easily into the overall image.

It’s fascinating to compare these two deeply considered productions. Spend time with them. But don’t, whatever you do, overlook the small oil sketch hanging beside them. It’s described as a study for “Omnibus,” although it doesn’t match any of the figures in the two finished versions.

Look at it simply, and close-up, as a piece of bravura oil painting. And then, if you can, tell me you’re quite sure Sargent was better than Zorn.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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