In 1897, Edward Rathbone Bacon, a powerful railway magnate, challenged the globetrotting Swedish artist Anders Zorn to best the portrait of his sister-in-law Virginia Purdy that John Singer Sargent had painted the year before.
Sargent’s portrait had the Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon standing, in a Spanish gown, leaning against a wall. Zorn—as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum tells it in its new exhibit “Anders Zorn: A European Artist Seduces America” (280 the Fenway, Boston, through May 13)—opted for a more intimate approach. His painting gazes down at the plain woman seated, indoors, wearing a satiny gown, stiffly hugging her collie.
Sargent saw Zorn’s canvas when it was shown at the Paris Salon that year and conceded that Zorn had “won a brilliant victory.” At least according to Zorn’s memoirs.
The anecdote is a glimpse into the competitive rivalry between Zorn and Sargent as artists and businessmen vying for portrait commissions from the same slice of Gilded Age high society.
Seeing Zorn’s work in Boston today, it’s hard not to feel Sargent, whose work is still celebrated everywhere around this town, ultimately bested Zorn.
Zorn is now the kind of talented but forgotten artist you find filling out museum collections; his art the sort of work you glance at with brief pleasure on the way to the big names. Why should we remember him now?
Gardner curator Oliver Tostmann says he wasn’t very familiar with Zorn’s work either before he arrived to work at the museum in 2011 and bumped into the artist’s 1893 painting of people riding a crowded Paris omnibus and his 1894 portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner seeming to dance through her Venice place. Then Tostmann noticed Zorns at the Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard University and the Worcester Art Museum as well.
“The Zorn that I knew is somehow transformed into something different. I didn’t know he was doing these urban city subjects. I didn’t know he knew how to handle color so well,” Tostmann tells me. “It just opened my eyes.”
Tostmann assembles more than 40 works from the U.S. and Europe and marshals significant research in an attempt to open our eyes too. Writing in the catalogue, he says, “This exhibition aims to reassess Anders Zorn by presenting him as an international artist who prepared the ground for modern art.” Hmm.
Anders Zorn was born in Mora, Sweden, in 1860. He studied at the Stockholm Royal Academy of Art, but left before graduation to launch a career in London and then Paris, while still summering in his native land. He showed his art widely across Europe and won portrait commissions from Americans, like Gardner, who became a friend. At age 29, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, commissioned him to paint a self-portrait for the museum’s famous collection.
He served as a commissioner of the Swedish art exhibition at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and commissioner of the Swedish art section at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1899. He was named a knight of the Swedish order of Wasa and awarded the Cross of the Legion d’honneur by the French government. The year after he died in Mora in 1920, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts presented a memorial exhibit of his art. In other words, he was fully embraced by his contemporary art establishment.
Zorn was a watercolorist before he took up oil painting. One of his first canvases is 1888’s “The Morning Toilet” of a naked woman and child wading into the water along a rocky curve of beach. In this scene evoking rural Swedish life, Zorn sharply conveys the water’s reflection and transparency and movement.
As an artist Zorn’s focus was nudes, society portraits (“the financial backbone for Zorn’s entire career,” Tostmann writes), images of modern Paris city life (mainly painted to titillate collectors outside France), and genre scenes of traditional Swedish life. Zorn had an eye for Velasquez and Manet. In particular, in his showy brushwork, you feel him adapting and updating the 17th century Dutch master Franz Hals.
In 1892, he painted two versions of a scene of people crowded inside a Paris “Omnibus”—and the differences are telling. The first is smaller, the brushwork looser. “This was painted for Paris,” Tostmann says. “It’s the new Impressionist style.” New is relative here. Impressionism had burst onto the Paris scene two decades earlier, in the 1870s.
The second, larger version, now in the Gardner collection, was painted for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. For this audience, Zorn gives different attention to the individual passengers. The rendering of a woman seated in the foreground with a hatbox on her lap is brought to a higher level of polish, while the riders behind are left out of focus. It changes the sense of the painting from a group of people on a bus to a portrait of a woman on the bus with other people in the background. It feels less like something happened upon and more like a stage play showcasing a pretty actress.
Zorn makes a prostitute his subject in his 1895 painting “Night Effect,” a life-sized portrait of a woman in a red dress (apparently signifying her profession) leaning against a tree at night, with her faced twisted by drunken stupor. Zorn nods to Impressionism with the showy flourish with which he paints her dress, and merges it with the pretty standard academic realism with which he renders her face. The power of the figure compensates for an awkward composition. The visual tension between the vague dark tree at right and the lit café in the background left throws the painting out of balance. Zorn often seems not to pay much attention to backgrounds.
Part of Zorn’s success was in playing to romantic clichés like prostitutes and hard laboring peasants in his art—and perhaps in his professional persona as well. “Montmartre, the popular quarter in Paris where he lived … by the mid-1890s, had already lost its artistic reputation and declined into a mere tourist attraction,” Tostmann writes.
Zorn is a talented painter, an entertaining painter. His etchings are particularly fine. But he’s conventional. Who’s to say how much it was his personality, and how much it was his acute sense of his market? But in retrospect, he’s just one more good painter working in a familiar academic style of his time. (Zorn is not technically academic, because he wasn’t necessarily affiliated with or following the dictates of the official French Academy, but he’s academic in the general meaning of the word today.)
In the end, Zorn and John Singer Sargent often work the same territory. But Sargent is a sharper painter. Oh my goodness, how Sargent makes it look effortless, like he never lays down an errant brushstroke or needs to change his mind. And Sargent’s portraits convey greater psychological insight. Unfortunately for Zorn in Boston, where Sargent’s shadow remains huge, it’s nearly impossible to see Zorn for himself.
Zorn and Sargent fall into the category of late 19th century square pegs that includes Gustave Caillebotte and James Tissot, delightful and even remarkable artists who didn’t quite get the revolutionary modernist forces swirling around them, or didn’t want to. Zorn benefitted in life with fame and money, but his reputation has suffered in history. It seems like a decent trade.
This article was originally published on March 12, 2013.
This program aired on March 12, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.