For unmitigated facility with the loaded brush, it’s hard to beat the portraitists of the Belle Époque. By the time Impressionism had won wide acceptance across Europe and throughout the moneyed classes in America, painters who 40 years earlier might have been academicians by most standards took advantage of the new industrially-produced oils in tubes and began slathering them. Hence John Singer Sargent, whom we regard as the exemplar of this style. Sargent is not remembered as an innovator but as a man whose dexterity outmatched practically everyone who ever picked up a hog bristle round.
But Sargent was hardly the only painter working thus. There was competition, not the least of which was the son of an unwed brewer from tiny Mora, Sweden who had been sent off to the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm at the age of 15, only to take America’s art world by storm thanks in no small part to the patronage and friendship of Isabella Stewart Gardner. The journey of Anders Zorn, from Swedish hamlet to the top echelon of society portraitists and back again, has a couple of messages for us. The first leg of the journey tells us that careerism is not a new phenomenon in the art world. The second tells us what it may be worth in the end.
Anders Zorn: A European Artist Seduces America at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the first concentrated treatment of the artist to appear on this continent in a quarter century and the first historical exhibit to appear in the new Hostetter Gallery of the museum’s much-needed expansion. There was some public bellyaching about the carriage house that was demolished to make way for the new wing, which was designed by art-museum-go-to architect Renzo Piano, but it was a small price to pay for the ability to operate in a manner becoming a twenty-first century institution. What befell the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is particular to its peculiarities, but contemporary pressures on an old building could have resulted in a similar mockery of the will of Mrs. Jack. The new wing relieves these pressures and promises to leave her mock palazzo intact for generations to come.
Zorn’s instructors in Stockholm discouraged him from accepting commissions before completing his studies, so Zorn abandoned his studies. An 1889 self-portrait of the artist, only 29 years old but already world-weary and sporting a lapel pin denoting his membership in the Legion of Honor, shows how much use he had for them. It pictures him in the studio, clad in an ascot, perhaps at work on a clay portrait bust that is a masterpiece of painterly form. In the background, we see a canvas from the back, with wedges pounded into the corners. The message is clear: here stands before you a professional with great powers. One can see those powers at work in a series of oil studies leading up his great Omnibus of 1892, in which a cruel shard of light falls upon the delicate cheek of a woman with a hatbox in her lap, crammed alongside her fellow passengers. It too is full of dazzling brushwork and cannily observed characters.
In 1893, Zorn was appointed commissioner for Sweden’s artistic representation at the Chicago World’s Fair. Here he met Gardner, who famously bought one of his paintings, prophesied that they would either become lifelong enemies or lifelong friends, and invited him to tea that afternoon. The latter came to pass. The catalogue, which is gorgeous, calls this anecdote
mythopoetic. (It was penned by Zorn after he and Gardner had known each other for 25 years). But it procedes factually from there to outline Zorn’s path to stardom, in which commissions and exhibitions followed one another until Gardner’s Zorn holdings were comparable to anyone’s and the press regularly referred to him as the Prince of Art. The lengths to which Gardner went to promote Zorn, in retrospect, are striking.
Zorn’s Boston debut was at the Museum of Fine Arts in March 1894. Situated on its original site in Copley Square, the museum was literally at the center of civic cultural life, and was the city’s most important art venue. Cosmopolitan in its outlook, in the same year the museum showed established first-rank international artists Whistler and Puvis de Chavannes and mounted a large group exhibition of contemporary Dutch painters. Gardner’s success in securing such a prestigious venue for Zorn was undoubtedly helped by her husband Jack’s position as treasurer for the museum since 1886.
Nowadays one might call that a conflict of interest. But no matter—this popularity gave rise to some of the great society portraits of the period. His 1897 painting of the delightfully named Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon might have made Sargent twitch with envy. (Sargent had destroyed an initial attempt to paint Mrs. Bacon after seeing Zorn’s first treatment of her from 1891.) She’s glowing in a pastel, lemon dress against an indigo carpet, her hand lovingly draped over a Collie. As is so often the case in this style, the satin dress is a world unto itself, swirling with light and color.
Despite its sympathy for the sitter, it’s hard not to feel that Zorn has granted more dignity and character to the dog. Did Zorn finally weary of the society portraiture circuit, just as Sargent did? In any case, 1898 found him back in Mora, working on a subfusc masterpiece of a ice skater on a lake surrounded by a winter night. The light picks up her concentrated expression and a hand half-tucked into her black, fur coat, then throws her sloping shadow across the ice. A few lamps and some inchoate figures can be seen in the background. Ruts cut into the ice form curves not unlike those in Mrs. Bacon’s fine satins.
A 1907 letter to Gardner informs her, “I am going to take Emma [Zorn's wife] for a trip to the very south and we will be in Venice (where I exhibit some of my last stupidities) in May and then unless we meet you we return to my newly constructed fishing cottage . . . about 18 miles from here where we intend to live the life of primitives or savages. Not even grapefruit for breakfast. I long for the wilderness and would you not like it too?” (I rather think she would not.) Having received the grandest of accolades and circulated among the highest echelons of society, he wanted nothing better than to retreat into seclusion.
He lived for another 13 years, but there would be no modernist phase for Zorn. His temperament was all wrong for such a thing, and his work, very much of its time, would subsequently fall into critical neglect. Yet looking back on these paintings, etchings, and drawings, as the Gardner Museum does, one can find great humanity in them, such that the skill appears as more than mere bravado. Zorn’s French brushwork, lavished upon American clients, retains a redemptive, Scandinavian depth.