The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on January 19th, 2014

I recently attended an exhibition of Anders Zorn’s work at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Also being presented was an exhibit of works by the French painter, Henri Matisse, whose fame and name are both much more familiar to most museum goers, and I was wondering if this was going to be a case of “come for the Matisse and stay for the Zorn.” But although Matisse’s work may have been much more seminal to the direction art was to take in the 20th century, there is no way Zorn’s output can be mistaken as an afterthought in the history of art. It is that impressive. Nevertheless, probably because modern art movements had a tendency to eclipse the more traditional works being created during those years, after Zorn’s death in 1920 his art faded out of the limelight until just recently. But for most of his lifetime (1860-1920), he was a highly-regarded star in the firmament of the international art world. If you click on the photo of Zorn and his wife Emma, taken in 1880, you will be led to a more detailed account of Zorn’s life.
Over a month since my visit to the museum, three prominent features remain in the forefront of my impressions of Zorn’s work, and they struck me in this order:

Stunning craftsmanship – especially in the watercolor paintings. I am not accustomed to seeing the devilishly difficult medium of watercolor used so effectively and on such a grand scale as it is employed in a number of his paintings. In the painting that follows, Sommarnöje (Summer Vacation), for example, it took close inspection for me to believe I was not looking at an oil painting. Zorn wrote about this work, “What seems now to have particularly attracted me was the play of the water and the reflections, to really get the movement, put the ripples and everything in perspective and scientifically explain it all with meticulous sharpness.” The painting is rather large for a watercolor (30"x21"), and the scale somehow seems to amplify how successful he was in realizing his aims.

Strong characterization. There are three primary things we usually look for in portraiture --- the artist’s craftsmanship, faithfulness to the subject, and the projection of personality. Of the three, the last is probably the most difficult to achieve. Yet, Zorn is able to accomplish this feat so well that we are struck by the potency of the psychological complexity that emanates from many of the subjects in his portrait paintings --- even in his etchings! We really feel as though we know something about who these people are. Needless to say, one of the artist’s chief sources of income came from his portrait commissions.

Ambassador David Jayne Hill (1911)

Martha Dana

Portrait of Elizabeth Sherman Cameron (1900)

Sensuality. In most of Zorn’s work there is a keen awareness of sensory or sensual implications he notices in his subjects, in both and internal and external sense. In Nude Under a Fir (1892), for example, it is pleasing to see the way he employs warm color to underline the warm skin tones and generous figure of the woman, and to note the way the patches of sunlight and shadow play over her body. But it is no less satisfying to watch how he has captured the light, colors, and even the relative dryness of afternoon.

And see how in Our Daily Bread (1886) we are able to perceive the woman’s rather melancholy state of mind and at the same time enjoy the freshness and fertile sensory atmosphere of her surroundings?

And more subtly yet, Zorn is sometimes able to capture an almost imperceptible undercurrent of sensuality in the fundamental nature of his subjects, as he does in the portrait of Martha Dana we viewed earlier.

Zorn is most assuredly an artist worthy of our attention. The re-emergence of his work may give us pause to wonder what other significant work by other artists may have fallen by the wayside in the widespread eagerness to embrace the new, the different, and the outrageous that has prevailed since the beginning of the 20th century. If the enjoyment we can glean from Andres Zorn’s work is any indication of what might be out there, perhaps it would be a good idea to go back and take a look.

Posted in ART    Tagged with Anders Zorn, painting, art, portraits, Sweden, Sweden's master painter


Wolf - January 10th, 2016 at 12:21 PM
I'm very satisfied with your views on Anders Zorn. He was a unique artist, and I appreciate nearly all of his works. Thank you for your contribution.
Robert Millar - January 11th, 2016 at 12:04 AM
Thanks for your kind comments, and thanks for stopping by.
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