Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter, National Academy Museum, New York – review

The prodigiously gifted Anders Zorn (1860-1920) squandered a portion of his talent, but what he left behind shimmers with sensual delight. Few people recognise his name today, though his stature as a painter of the gaudy rich once rivalled that of John Singer Sargent. Posterity has been unfair: Zorn deserves much more acclaim for the theatrical virtuosity he whipped into his portraits, and for his stupefyingly deft watercolours. The moment for his resurrection seems ripe, and the National Academy Museum has seized it by mounting a charming retrospective of this misjudged master. If only today’s financial titans had a chronicler as sparkling and adroit as Zorn.

The illegitimate son of a brewery maid from the Swedish countryside and a German master-brewer who scarpered off to Helsinki, he grew up on his grandparents’ farm. At 15 was accepted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Art in Stockholm, where he wowed his teachers and peers with his technique. A fellow student recalled: “I perpetually heard the name Zorn mentioned, and it was enveloped in an aura of wonder and admiration, both for the man’s phenomenal artistic gifts and for his whole original personality . . . If anyone asked what it was that caught us in the work, whether it was the trick of colouring, something original or modern, we could only answer: ‘It’s so damned good.’”

In 1881 Zorn fell in love with Emma Lamm, whose wealthy Jewish family disapproved of her marrying a rustic with a dubious trade. The couple got secretly engaged, and Zorn set off on a four-year quest to earn her family’s approval. He moved to London and set up a fashionable studio in Mayfair. Commissions began pouring in. In one of the finest of these made-to-order portraits a dapper fellow in a crisp striped suit complaisantly receives the tribute of Zorn’s dazzling brush – and the demands of his earnest dog.

“He is sprawling comfortably on a soft divan,” the painter wrote to his fiancé, “looking up from absorbed contemplation of the portrait of his girlfriend to exchange a glance with his dog, standing astride him and staring at him with bewildered eyes. The painting could be entitled ‘Rivals’.” This fellow, a grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, was among the first Americans to recognise how adept Zorn was at lacquering new wealth with a veneer of delicacy. But attentive viewers must have noted how the dog’s sleek majesty far outshines the youth’s callow glamour.

Zorn balanced his subjects’ need for validation against the joy of pure painting, just as he found a perfectly pitched compromise between painterly abstraction and exacting realism. The magnificent “Mrs Walter Rathbone Bacon” also has a canine companion, but this collie’s fur swells into waves of pure delight that dash upon the lady’s dress. And even more important than dog or dress are the feverish lavender, indigo and navy-blue shadows swirling across the floor and up the right half of the painting.

Sargent, Zorn’s chief rival, had done a version of Mrs Bacon the year before, rendering her à l’espagnole. It wasn’t one of his successes. Decked out in Spanish ruffles, she leans awkwardly against a wall as the flesh of her face curdles into a bilious yellow. Her brother-in-law, the railway magnate Edward Bacon, challenged the Swede to best Sargent by painting her again. When Sargent saw Zorn’s canvas at the Paris Salon, he conceded that Zorn had won a “resplendent victory”. Self-legend has it that Whistler chimed in with comparable admiration. Zorn may have won this particular contest, but he also made his share of paint-by-numbers duds. He couldn’t animate the cardboard US President William Howard Taft, for instance, or breathe intelligence into Mrs Richard Howe. Then again, he painted some 550 portraits (at $4,000 a pop, in 1901 dollars – more than $100,000 today).

Like Sargent he regarded these deluxe commissions as his day job; what he really wanted to do was paint watercolours. In his time off, he did – among them a radiant view of the fish market in St Ives, Cornwall, where he and Emma (they did eventually marry) lived briefly in the late 1880s. Zorn steers clear of the picturesque: the corpses of immense fish sprawl across the beach, eyes bulging and mouths agape as if toiling for one last breath. Above the catch the fisherman’s wife looms. We fix on the bulk of body pressing up against her clothes, and especially on broad expanses of exposed flesh.

“Those bare, blotchy red arms clearly absorbed most of the painter’s interest,” he later noted, with dry self-deprecation. Where Sargent’s watercolours dabbled in delicate pleasures, Zorn’s rejoice in crude physicality. His technique was always meticulous, but women’s bodies swelled voluptuously beneath his brush. “A hybrid between a gentleman and a farmer,” is how one of his wife’s relatives aptly described him.

It’s easy to account for the total eclipse of Zorn’s reputation. Like Sargent he was pushed aside by an unsympathetic avant-garde who labelled him a stylistic dinosaur and flunky to the nouveau riche. The generation of gilded Americans willing to pay record-breaking sums for portraiture was dying out. And there was little legroom for a peripatetic cosmopolitan in an era of surging nationalism. The years after 1910 were arid and lonely ones as Zorn saw his reputation wither before his dimming eyes.

It’s a shame, though, that this proudly comfortable man didn’t yearn more fervently for freedom. On the whole, his work is erratic and sometimes lazy, but the National Academy show offers glimpses of wonder. Viewers are left to wish he had charged even more outrageous sums for his bespoke paintings, and bought himself the leisure to pursue art that wouldn’t sell.

To May 18,

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