“Anders Zorn: A European Seduces America,” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, explores a fascinating episode in the vibrant milieu of Belle Époque artists and patrons. While not as well known today as his contemporaries James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, Zorn (1860–1920) had a similar bravura technique and forward-looking aesthetic. The Swedish-born Zorn was an international art star. The exhibition of twenty-four paintings and twenty-two works on paper reflects the strong holdings of the Gardner and includes important loans. Most of all, it shines a light on the relationship between Zorn and his principal American patron. Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice (1894) captures the exuberance of the era. Gardner had invited Zorn to stay with her in Venice in 1894. He depicts her, arms spread wide, in a white dress, with the Grand Canal shimmering behind her. The sketchy brushstrokes give the image an impromptu flair. A photograph from the same trip shows the Gardners with Zorn and his wife, Emma, in side-by-side gondolas on the Grand Canal.
Zorn’s more formal portraits are equally vital. In George Peabody Gardner (1899), Zorn depicts Isabella’s nephew, not a particularly rakish fellow, but elegantly posed, beside a billiard table. The table is off-kilter, subtly tilted up, while the cue leans against it, echoing the angle of George’s leg. Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon (1897) was commissioned by the lady’s brother-in-law, a railway magnate and savvy connoisseur who had ordered a Sargent portrait of the subject the year before. Sargent depicts her standing, leaning against a muraled wall, in a black Spanish gown with a fan. In this head-to-head competition, Zorn not only holds his own but, it could be argued, comes out ahead. The subject, wearing a satin-and-lace white dress, sits in a chair, one arm around a magnificent collie. Light caresses her pale skin, the gleaming fabric and the dog’s fur. Zorn looks down on her from above, and the slightly tilted floor adds to the dynamic energy of the composition. Zorn’s brushstrokes are broad and loose—again, a modern feeling is established. Like Sargent, Zorn can flatter his subjects without prettifying them. Mrs. Bacon is not a great beauty, but both artists suggest she has style and panache.
Zorn was also a keen observer of contemporary life, high and low. While he was not a habitué of the disreputable world of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, he painted one terrific picture of a Parisian streetwalker, Night Effect (1895). Unsteady on her feet, she is not a glamorous figure, but Zorn relishes the theatricality of her bold red dress and furs. The artist’s nudes have a very different feel, neither prurient nor coy. The natural setting he chooses contributes to the openness. In Frileuse: Shivering Girl (1894), the model stands shin-deep in a lake, her pale skin rosy in the cool Swedish summer. Lively brushwork captures the rustle of green leaves and the concentric ripples of the water around her. Zorn finds a painterly equivalent for fresh air that evokes a vision of country life.
City life appears in a more literally constrained way in The Omnibus (1892). In the shadowed confines of a Parisian streetcar, passengers are arrayed on one side of the car, caught in the irregular light coming through smudged windows. They are a mixed lot: an attractive young woman sits next to a dozing working man in a cap, who is squeezed in beside a top-hatted gentleman—a cross section of urban life. Zorn executed two versions of the work; Gardner bought the second one when it was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Zorn thrived in a milieu where artists and patrons seemed on comfortable terms with each other. On Zorn’s third visit to the United States, in 1898, he set up a studio in Gardner’s Back Bay home and painted portraits of her friends and relatives, including the one of George Peabody Gardner already discussed. One of Gardner’s protégés is depicted in Martha Dana (later Mrs. William Mercer), from 1899, a free-spirited image of an attractive young woman, shown half-length. She looks to the side, and her mouth is slightly open, as if she were about to speak. Her ensemble is crisp and modern: a trim black jacket and white blouse, set off by a stylish little hat. Zorn lays on the white paint for the blouse and the wall behind her with a masterly nonchalance, while conveying a sense of the sitter’s vivacious intelligence.
Zorn also painted artists and their studios. Wikström’s Studio (1889) shows the studio but not the artist, the well-respected turn-of-the-century Finnish sculptor Emil Wikström. We see a half-nude model standing next to a monumental clay sculpture. The rosy flesh of the model, illuminated by filtered light from a background window, contrasts with the heavily impastoed clay. Zorn’s Self-Portrait (1889) depicts the nattily dressed artist next to a clay bust of his wife. He wears on his lapel a red ribbon, the mark of his induction the same year into the French Legion of Honor. The painting was commissioned by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence for its collection of artists’ self-portraits, a testament to Zorn’s importance in the contemporary art world. His work still looks remarkably fresh today, and this exhibition should introduce him to a wider audience. Anders Zorn: A European Artist Seduces America, the 200-page catalogue, contains 120 color illustrations, along with text by Oliver Tostmann, with contributions by Hans Henrik Brummer, Anne-Marie Eze, Michelle Facos and Alexander auf der Heyde (London: Paul Holberton, 2013). The exhibition was on view February 28–May 13, 2013, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 The Fenway, Boston, Massachusetts 02115. Telephone (617) 566-1401. gardnermuseum.org