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From couples in traditional dress dancing on midsummer’s night to a naked blonde woman leading her son through rippling water, the work of Anders Zorn (1860-1920) depicts idyllic scenes that we still broadly associate with life in Scandinavia. Fearing that his country’s traditional way of life was about to disappear, like many of his European contemporaries around the turn of the twentieth century, this Swedish artist set out to chronicle life in his homeland. Zorn’s success as an artist took him all over the world, painting portraits of the great and the good. But in his Swedish work we see a cosmopolitan falling in love with home again after travelling far and wide.
Anders Zorn is still well known in Sweden, but he has largely escaped the attention of the public in the rest of Europe. This autumn Kunstmuseum Den Haag will bring together 150 paintings, watercolours and etchings in the first retrospective of his work in the Netherlands, organised in collaboration with Nationalmuseum in Stockholm and Zorn Museum in Mora.
Man of the world
2020 is the centenary of the death of Anders Zorn. His life began in 1860 in Mora, a small town in the Dalarna region of Sweden. He grew up in a poor family, with no father. After training at the art academy in Stockholm he took a ‘grand tour’ through Europe, which gave him a taste for travel, and he subsequently lived in London and Paris. Zorn started painting in watercolours, and later moved to oils. He eventually specialised in portraits, which became particularly popular among the upper classes in the United States. Zorn met his wife Emma Lamm when he was painting a portrait of her nephew in Stockholm, and it was through her family that he came into contact with the international elite.
Although European aristocrats, famous artists and American presidents paid record sums for his portraits, he did not portray them as any better than they were in reality. He was known for his ability to see through his models, and he liked to paint them in their own setting, with their favourite objects, like books or an easel, rather than in a studio. Sometimes this honest approach worked against him. Finnish art collector Frithiof Herman Antell, for example, burnt the portrait Zorn had painted of him, because rather than hiding his drunkenness, he in fact accentuated it.
At the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 Zorn experienced his breakthrough as a plein-air artist. Though he moved in the highest circles in London, Paris and the United States, in Sweden he liked to retreat into nature. Like the Dutch artists of the Hague School, he would paint the landscape as the setting for scenes from daily life. He was particularly admired for the way he captured the play of light on water. Inspired by his collection of Rembrandt prints, he also became a skilful printmaker.
But it is his female nudes that make him so popular with the public. Zorn introduced a new sensuality to the genre by painting his models not only in the studio, but also in natural surroundings. Paddling through rippling water or strolling through green meadows, the women appear relaxed and liberated. In his day Zorn was known for his pure depictions of many different kinds of women, each of them in their element. Today, however, his sensual nudes are often regarded as an example of the ‘male gaze’, which reduces the woman to an object, and still influences the way we look at women today.
Traditional way of life
After eight years in Paris, in 1896 Zorn and his wife finally settled in Sweden. Although he still travelled the world to paint portraits, he focused above all on recording the traditional way of life in Mora. According to his friend, the artist Albert Engström, his many travels had only made Zorn ‘all the more Swedish’. Although his house in Mora was equipped with all the modern conveniences and comforts, Zorn was afraid that the modernity he made such grateful use of himself would dilute the traditional culture of his home region.
As such, Zorn was a naturalist, a movement which focused on the faithful representation of people and their surroundings. He studied the ‘simple’ life of the countryside in an almost scientific way, and was keen to capture the Swedish natural character. He believed a life spent close to nature was purer than a life in the city. His body of work features idyllic depictions of labourers toiling in the fields, and blonde women in traditional dress preparing food or playing music. He referred to Midsummer Dance, a work showing couples in traditional dress dancing during the ‘Midsommar’ festivities, as ‘the work that expresses my innermost self’.
Zorn was not only a painter. He and his wife also collected traditional fabric, wooden horses and other folklore objects. They were in fact so determined to preserve the local culture that they eventually started their own open air museum, which still exists to this day. Items from their collection will also be on display at Kunstmuseum Den Haag. Zorn died on 22 August 1920 in the place where it all began, Mora. His wife Emma continued to run the museum and administer his estate until her death in 1942.