The Swedish artist Anders Zorn steps out of the shadows of history for “Anders Zorn: A European Seduces America,” coming to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at the end of February.
“Too young to be an Impressionist, too old to be a Modernist,” says Oliver Tostmann, the Gardner museum’s curator of the collection, who is organizing the exhibit. “He’s forgotten in the US, and largely in Europe.”
Yet in the years around the turn of the 20th century, Zorn commanded international attention. His paintings, characterized by swift, breezy brushstrokes and a limited palette, dance on the canvas.
“The show is a reassessment of this great artist,” says Tostmann. “It also shows the mechanics of the art market at that time.”
Zorn built his career on portraiture, painting presidents and tycoons, and it’s easy to compare him with his contemporary, another painter of society portraits, John Singer Sargent.
“Both are not really cutting edge. Both have excellent technique and a marvelous painterly style,” says Tostmann. “But if you compare their portraits, Sargent’s women are elegant, refined, and a little bloodless. Zorn’s female models are vivacious, full of life.”
A case in point: Zorn’s dynamic “Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice,” painted when the artist and his wife, Emma, joined Gardner and her husband, Jack, for a month together in a Venice palazzo. Arms outstretched, a rosy-cheeked Gardner steps toward the viewer, smiling. Mysterious lights twinkle in the darkness behind her.
“It rendered this woman, who was already 50 years old, ageless,” says Tostmann. “She is the star of the evening.”
Zorn and Gardner met when the painter came to the United States for the first time, to exhibit at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Gardner was there, and lit upon Zorn’s painting “The Omnibus,” which depicts a dreamy young woman on a Paris omnibus with a hatbox on her lap.
“She decided on the spot to buy it,” Tostmann says. “It was the first painting Zorn sold in the US.”
The painting equally captivated the curator when he joined the museum in 2011, and inspired him to put together this exhibit, his first for the Gardner. The show features 24 paintings, along with drawings, photographs, and letters.
Gardner became a patron of Zorn’s. The exhibit examines their relationship through more than 60 letters Zorn sent Gardner. Her letters to him, other than two she sent to his wife after his death, have been destroyed or gone missing.
“At the beginning, the correspondence is fairly transactional,” says Anne-Marie Eze, a curatorial fellow at the museum who studied the letters.
After the Venice trip, she says, “they become personal, jovial, jokey, and charming. Topics range from projects he’s working on to gossip about people they know.” Some letters sport jaunty, cartoonish sketches, such as one of Zorn looking sad and droopy as he leaves the Gardners’ house in Brookline, with a stick figure of his hostess’s arms spread wide, as they are in his portrait of her.
“Anders Zorn: A European Seduces America” looks closely at Zorn’s bonhomie and his canny marketing abilities. He traveled extensively and spoke several languages. In the German Empire alone between 1890 and 1914, he had work included in 70 shows. He joined several international artists’ associations, and sat on exhibition juries, such as that of the Venice Biennale. He promoted himself as an international artist.
“He was independent, with no single patron. He had to invent his brand — a couple of times,” says Tostmann. The evidence of that is in what Zorn paintings you find where. European collections highlight his rural scenes of peasants and nude bathers. Europeans had a romance with Scandinavian art in the 1880s and saw Zorn as its pinnacle.
Americans went for his urban scenes that concentrated on modern themes — public transit in “The Omnibus,” or the seamy narrative of a stumbling, drunken woman outside a bar in “Night Effect.” Such subjects were no longer new or shocking by the time he tackled them in the 1890s, but Zorn’s composition and paint handling were dazzling.
“I’m intrigued by the dispersal of his work between European and American collections,” says Tostmann. “They tell this story about a versatile artist who explored different countries, different markets, with different strategies.”
His portraits had transcontinental appeal. The best of them capture snapshots of a moment, and reveal something sparkling in their subjects. With the dashy quality of his paint application, you might think that Zorn painted each on the spot. But, as Tostmann points out in his catalog essay, he took a more academic approach with portraits, making several preliminary sketches. He plotted everything out painstakingly, and then, when he put brush to canvas, he painted with brio.
As a painter, Zorn didn’t break new ground, but he had outstanding technique, and a keen sense of the psychology of portraiture, aided by his own extroverted personality. Perhaps most importantly, he had a terrific agent — himself.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.