The late 19th century was a heady time in the art world, both here and in Europe. The wealthy industrialists or “robber barons” of the Gilded Age — Mellon, Carnegie, Frick, Gould, and Vanderbilt among them — commissioned artists to decorate their town houses and country estates in Manhattan and Newport, Venice and Paris.
By Margot Clark-Junkins
The late 19th century was a heady time in the art world, both here and in Europe. The wealthy industrialists or “robber barons” of the Gilded Age — Mellon, Carnegie, Frick, Gould, and Vanderbilt among them — commissioned artists to decorate their town houses and country estates in Manhattan and Newport, Venice and Paris. By the turn of the century, new wealth and the insatiable demand for Impressionist art, in particular, American portrait painter John Singer Sargent’s vivid portrayals of high society ladies and their powerful husbands, created new opportunities for up-and-coming painters.
Swedish painter Anders Zorn stepped into the fray in the 1890s, quickly becoming one of America’s most sought-after portrait painters. An exhibit of Zorn’s work, at the National Academy Museum in Manhattan through May 18, is a complete delight, offering two floors of dazzling, deftly rendered portraits, landscapes and seascapes, in watercolors, oils, and prints.
Anders Zorn was born in 1860 and raised on a farm in Mora, Sweden. His parents met while working in a local brewery. Zorn studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Stockholm from 1875 until 1881. He traveled widely for several years, painting the entire time, returning home to marry his fiancé, Emma Lamm, in 1885. They lived first in England and then Paris, forging close ties with artists and influential patrons in numerous European cities. Each summer, the couple returned to Mora and to the island of Dalaro in the Stockholm archipelago, so that Zorn could reconnect with the landscape he dearly loved, honing his painting skills in order to perfectly capture midsummer’s light reflected by the Baltic Sea.
At first, Zorn strove to master the medium of watercolor, inspired by Swedish painter Egron Lundgren (1815-1875). Watercolor is an unforgiving medium, requiring an absolutely sure hand and a perfect understanding of where light falls on a given subject. The paint cannot be pushed around on paper, as it may when using oils on a canvas, and so there is little margin for error. After Zorn’s watercolor The Cousins (1882) was accepted by the prestigious (and picky) Paris Salon, an art critic for La Presse allowed that Zorn was “a watercolorist of talent.” In 1885, Zorn painted a portrait of Clarence Barker, a grandson of the industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt; he joked in a letter to his wife that the painting ought to be called “Rivals,” referring to Barker’s divided loyalties between his sweetheart (her portrait is clutched in one hand) and Barker’s dog, who has planted one paw on his lap and is gazing hopefully at his master.
By 1890, Zorn had completely mastered the medium, producing urbane portraits with vibrant colors, and seascapes filled with waves, shallows, depths, boat reflections, fog, and all manner of light effects. It is worth noting that several of these watercolors are almost three feet high. A friend urged him to experiment with oils, and this is when Zorn’s portrait career really took off. Between 1893 and 1911, he traveled to America seven times; among his many commissions were portraits of Grover Cleveland (1898-99), Theodore Roosevelt (1904), and William H. Taft (1911). In 1900, he won the Grand Prix as a painter and etcher at the world-famous Paris Exposition. In 1901, the Minneapolis Journal ran the headline, “Zorn’s Brush: Its Magic Frequently Brings the Owner $15,000 A Week.”
One of his most glorious portraits is Mrs. Potter Palmer (1893), a 9- or 10-foot tall oil portrait of a woman in a voluminous white gown; Palmer was the President of the Board of Lady Managers for the Chicago’s World Fair. Zorn’s swift strokes of pure white paint and clever use of light call to mind Sargent’s iconic portrait of another lady in a white dress, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, completed the same year.
Zorn’s landscapes are perhaps the perfect antidote to the luxurious color and urbane sophistication evident in his portraits. At home in Sweden, he created painting after painting of flowering meadows, bay views, pinewoods, nudes bathing on summer evenings. Midsummer Dance (1897) depicts the all-important Scandinavian folk celebration marking midsummer. The radiant evening light, maypole, folk costumes, and timber structures in the background reflect the abiding nationalism typical of the period; the painting also reminds us of this great painter’s nostalgia for his roots.
Do not miss the 4th-floor room full of Zorn’s etchings, expertly rendered portraits of his friend Antonin Proust (no relation to the writer), his colleagues Auguste Rodin and Paul Verlaine, and the artist’s model of his good friend, Augustus St. Gaudens. Each print captures the essence of the person portrayed, rather surprising when you consider the wild array of velvety black lines which rise and fall and smash into each other.
The National Academy, which faces Central Park on Fifth Avenue, is a lovely and fitting place to view Zorn’s work. The elegant wood-paneled rooms with parquet floors and marble fireplaces are original to the townhouse, which was designed in 1901 by Ogden Codman, a Boston-bred architect who co-wrote “The Decoration of Houses” (1897) with Edith Wharton and who designed numerous interiors for the rich and famous including the great rooms of the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island. The rooms are spacious with few visitors at midday; two women strolled past deep in a quiet conversation — in Swedish.
The National Academy Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m.- 6 p.m.