Superb Anders Zorn Exhibit at National Academy Museum
The artist Anders Zorn was clearly a man of his time. In 90 beautiful and telling works in the exhibit, “Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter,” at the National Academy Museum, the values and sensibilities of Europe and America towards the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries are apparent. Born to simple circumstances in rural Sweden in 1860, Zorn’s story of rags to riches was not uncommon in an exuberant era of mass migrations, industrialization, new fortunes, and urbanization. Zorn is perhaps best known for his exquisite oil portraits of luminaries in elite society, politics, and the arts. Rich, deep colors, fashionable attire, and confident demeanors mark these paintings, reflecting their milieu—the Gilded Age in the United States and Belle Epoch in Europe. A dapper-looking, well-connected man, Zorn fit easily into upper class circles where demand for his handsome likenesses was high. In seven visits to the United States he painted about 100 portraits, rivaling his friend John Singer Sargent, the very successful American portraitist, for high society commissions. His sitters in America included the industrialist Andrew Carnegie and 3 presidents—Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. Other subjects included people at work, such as lace makers and brewery workers, where broad brush strokes, attention to light, and a keen eye produced wonderfully atmospheric canvases.
Skilled in several art mediums, Zorn made almost 300 etchings early in his career, participating in the revival of that art form. An impressive group of these boldly worked, parallel and cross hatched depictions of people and places is included in the National Academy show. Zorn’s first medium was watercolor. In 1881, as travel became easier and more popular, the young Zorn left his studies at Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts to explore new cultures and become familiar with foreign artists and styles. He traveled to Spain, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Algeria, England, France, Germany, and the United States. A penchant for travel remained throughout his life. The early watercolors are masterful; some, done during his foreign travels, focus on costume and local color, reflecting a fascination with the “exotic” that was common during his time. Others show his attraction to the sea as light plays on surfaces and water shimmers. In “Fish Market from St. Ives” (1888), delicate grays, blues, and browns capture a busy work beach where huge fish squirm on the sand, gasping their last breaths by a calm sea under a gray sky. Other scenes from nature show a lush, idyllic world.
Zorn’s life came full circle in 1896 when he returned to live and work in his home province of Dalarna. Swedish culture was caught in a wave of nationalism and Zorn was able to give his countrymen some delightful paintings that show rural folk culture and traditions. A favorite in the National Museum in Stockholm, now being exhibited at the National Academy Museum, is “Midsummer Dance” (1897). A large oil painting, it shows costumed villagers dancing around the maypole on summer solstice. The special light of that day suffuses the lively canvas. Other works capture the timbered cottages, deep forests, and small town camaraderie found in Dalarna. A treasured artist in his native Sweden, Anders Zorn died in 1920.
The National Academy Museum at Fifth Avenue and 89th St. is part of the National Academy, a unique institution comprising a museum, art school, and association of artists and architects. It is housed in the beautiful 1902 Beaux Arts Huntington townhouse. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Sunday, 11am - 6pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday. The Anders Zorn exhibit ends May 18.#
Sybil Maimin is a senior writer for Education Update and a sculptor.