Every so often, a friend will drop the name of an artist with whom they are quite familiar. Being the helpful sort, I always pick it up and give it back to them. I'm not exactly unknowing when it comes to famous artists, but sometimes when this happens I have to ask myself, "Why have I never heard of this one?" In checking out the artist, usually on the Internet, sometimes that question becomes one bordering on disbelief. How could I have missed knowing the work of such an exceptional artist? One such artist is (or was) Anders Zorn. Even though he died in 1920, I'm never sure exactly which tense to use in discussing an historic personage I've (figuratively) just met. Why have I JUST met him? I've studied art history now for something like 30 years. Well, perhaps it was because he was Swedish, not exactly the hub of the art world. Or perhaps it was because much of his work is in watercolor (woefully under-appreciated by art historians). Or, maybe it's because he was primarily known for his society portraits which were easily the equal to those of John Singer Sargent or James McNeill Whistler. It's conceivable that I'd not heard of him BECAUSE of these two more prominent painters. I mean, just how many society portrait painters from the same era do we need in the history of art? I don't know, but somehow, up until now, his work had escaped me.
Zorn was born in 1860 in the small Swedish village of Mora, some 310 km northwest of Stockholm. His mother was a peasant girl who spent her summers working part time in a local brewery. It was there she met the owner, Johan Leonard Zorn. Zorn fathered her child, whom he acknowledged and gave his name, though they were never married. Anders was largely raised by his grandparents and showed exceptional artistic ability as a child as young as ten. When he was twelve, Anders father died, leaving a modest sum of money for the boy's education. He studied at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts during which time he became secretly engaged to Emma, the daughter of a wealthy Stockholm family. Following graduation from the academy in 1882, he set out for Paris and most of the rest of Europe to seek his fortune in hopes of marrying the girl and keeping her in the manner to which she'd become accustomed. It took him three years and in the process, his single-minded determination and his talent with a watercolor brush won him no small amount of success in the European art world.
It's difficult for us to imagine now, a hundred years later, the European art world of the late 1800s. Even though the Zorns set up shop in Paris, their travel itinerary leaves one breathless even in this day and age. From about 1887 on, Zorn switched from his exceptionally large watercolor format to oils, and it was from this turning point that his career really took off. He made seven trips to this country over the course of the next thirty years and it was from the dozens of portrait commissions here, including most of the rich "robber baron" families of the time, that his fortune as an artist was made. His subjects here included presidents, senators, ambassadors, millionaires and millionairesses, their sons and daughters, and even their dogs. In Europe, the list reads like a "who's who" of aristocracy and royalty, up to and including the Queen of Sweden. He built a Nordic mansion in his hometown, had a log fishing retreat some 20 miles back in the woods, and guest privileges in similar digs in nearly every city in Europe. He sailed on his own private yacht in the summer and spent the rest of the year wherever there was a portrait to be painted or an art exhibit to honor him. In addition to oils and watercolors, he was also expert as a sculptor and etcher. His work in painting female nudes in the natural settings, often involving water, is quite amazing. His genre scenes of Swedish peasant girls add depth to his oeuvre. All of which further adds to the perplexing question, why had I never heard of the man?