Monday, June 29, 2020

Anders Zorn: Swedish Superstar and American Idol

Zorn’s self-portrait appears on the cover of the  brochure for a 
memorial exhibition that traveled the United States in 1925.  

“Special Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Water Colors by Anders Zorn.” 
Grand Central Art Galleries. Carnegie Institute, 
Museum of Art records, 1883-1962, bulk 1885-1940, Series 3: 
Exhibitions, Box 204, Folder 23: Zorn, Anders L., 1924-1925, 
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
The year 2020 marks the centennial of the death of Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860–1920). While he may no longer be a household name, at the time of his death at the age of sixty, Zorn was a world-renowned painter and etcher—highly sought after for portrait commissions not only throughout Europe but also across the United States. His sitters included three U.S. presidents, industrialists Andrew Carnegie and Robert Brookings, and countless other high society figures. Several days after his death was announced in the U.S. press, the New York Times ran a piece on Zorn noting: “Those who noticed the death of the Swedish artist Anders Zorn felt . . . a shock which may be taken as a measure of his significance in art.” [i]

Whereas Zorn’s friends and admirers in the United States were stunned by his death, it was even more deeply felt in Sweden, where he is still known as a “Swedish Superstar.” [ii] Zorn was born and raised in rural Mora, Sweden, about two hundred miles northwest of Stockholm. His mother, who had been working in Stockholm as a bottle washer in a brewery, returned to live with her parents in Mora after becoming pregnant. She gave birth to Zorn in a stable next to their farmhouse. Zorn’s artistic gifts were recognized at an early age. With initial support from his extended family, he made his way to the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm at the age of fifteen. Once there, Zorn managed to finance his living expenses, education, and appetite for travel through portrait commissions, eventually living and working for extended periods in London and Paris and traveling throughout Spain and Italy.

Zorn first traveled to the United States in 1893, when he led a delegation of Swedish artists exhibiting at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which is often referred to as the Chicago World’s Fair. His art and his personality alike made quite the impression on fair attendees. Two significant  sales at the event effectively launched Zorn’s career in the United States and brought new commissions: one was the purchase of his painting Omnibus (1892) by Isabella Stewart Gardner, which remains on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, and the other was the sale of The Waltz (1891) to George Vanderbilt, who installed it at his Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, where it can still be viewed.
Mary Hardin by Anders Zorn, date unknown 1977.134.2 
Etching Smithsonian American  Art Museum,  Gift of Laura Dreyfus 
Barney and Natalie Clifford Barney  in memory of their mother, 
Alice Pike Barney 

Zorn was a master etcher whose ability to depict light
and shadow with a few strokes was widely admired.

An article in Art Amateur, which ran at the time of the World’s Fair in 1893, commented, “Zorn’s manner may be said to be that of a careful and scientific Impressionist intent on getting the greatest possible amount of sunlight, quality of color and verity of expression into his work with the least possible display of means.” [iii] While the article was referring to Zorn’s etching, many of his paintings were also characterized by the use of a limited, tonal color palette and the skillful treatment of light. The same Art Amateur article includes the wry observation: “We believe that if a vote were taken, Mr. Zorn would turn out to be the most popular artist with artists at The World’s Fair.” [iv] This popularity was apparently not limited to fellow artists, as his initial trip to the United States led to lifelong friendships with Gardner, Chicago businessman Charles Deering, and others. Their well-documented travels throughout Europe and the United States, lengthy visits to each other’s homes, and extensive correspondence spanning the next twenty-five years, which is now saved in the archives of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Zornmuseet (Zorn Museum) in Mora, Sweden, attest to the depth of their affection for Zorn.

Oil on canvas
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution;
gift of the Reverend Thomas G. Cleveland

Zorn painted this portrait in 1899, two years after 
Cleveland had completed his second term. The sittings 
took place at the former president’s estate in Princeton, 
New Jersey, where the artist and subject bantered happily 
for several days. Cleveland expressed satisfaction with t
his portrait, declaring, “As for my ugly mug, I think the 
artist has ‘struck it off’ in great shape.” 
[Excerpted from the National Portrait Gallery’s
museum label]

How did a person of humble origins establish such easy rapport with U.S. high society? Zorn attributed the values instilled in him by his peasant grandparents as a key to his success in developing deep, lasting friendships in the United States. In his memoirs, Zorn wrote:

I got on well in America and with Americans. Their frank, straightforward manner suited my nature. I’ve never really been able to stand our urban Europeans’ ceremonious style and artificial customs . . . . But the simple rules of conduct that were so severely impressed on me by my grandfather from my earliest childhood were not so tricky; faithfulness, being true to one’s word, honesty and punctuality, were virtues I discovered were unnecessary with my fellow countrymen in the cities . . . . Why was I more than other foreigners during [my first visit to America] closest to the elite of American and introduced in all the clubs? Everywhere I went, I ascribed this to my grandfather, the splendid old Mora peasant who raised me until I was twelve… Over there [in America], when they say “he’s all-right,” all doors can open to the foreigner, which Europeans cannot understand. Openness, honesty, straight forwardness, punctuality, and true to friendship -- these things are included in the testimonial "he's all-right." [v] 

Zorn embraced the American entrepreneurial spirit and principles like authenticity, reliability, and trustworthiness that he felt defined his own character. Much like industrialists of the Gilded Age, he was a self-made man.

During Zorn’s third trip to the United States from 1898–1899, he was asked to paint President Grover Cleveland and First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland, who had recently left the White House. Although President Cleveland informed Zorn that “he would rather go to the dentist than to sit for his portrait,” [vi] he too was eventually won over by Zorn’s personality and engaging repartee. While Zorn gained additional prominence from the opportunity to paint a U.S. president, he was perhaps more inspired by the prospect of painting Frances Cleveland. A fashion icon noted for her beauty and charm, she has been referred to as the country’s “first celebrity first lady.” [vii] Pleased with the resulting portrait of Frances Cleveland, Zorn produced a copy of the painting and presented it to Isabella Stewart Gardner for her birthday in 1899.

Frances Folsom Cleveland by Anders Zorn, 1899 Oil 
on canvas National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian 
Institution; gift of Frances Payne S/NPG.77.124 

First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland’s portrait toured 
alongside her husband's as part of the memorial
exhibition organized in the U. S. after Zorn's death.

Although Zorn’s commissions ultimately made him wealthy, he stayed true to his roots, returning every summer to Mora and its surroundings to paint. While he is best known in the U.S. as a portrait painter, he is perhaps better known in Sweden for his depictions of rural folklife. With his earnings, he invested extensively in the community in and around Mora and the preservation of its traditional architecture, music, textiles, wood carving, and other folk arts. Likely inspired by Gardner’s plans to turn her home, Fenway Court, into a museum, Zorn and his wife Emma ensured that their home and studio would eventually be converted into a museum complex.

In 1924, four years after his death, an extensive memorial exhibition showcasing more than five hundred of Zorn’s works was held in Stockholm and highlighted the breadth of his career. Around the same time, a traveling exhibition organized by the Carnegie Institute also toured the United States. While the name Zorn may no longer elicit instant recognition in the United States, his body of work is worth revisiting, as is his unconventional path to superstardom, his entrepreneurial spirit, and his commitment to community, which continues to inspire.

By Beth Gottschling Huber, intern, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Catalog of American Portraits

i “The Art of Anders Zorn,” New York Times, August 29, 1920. 

ii “Zorn–A Swedish Superstar,” Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, accessed May 20, 2020, 

iii “Mr. Zorn’s Exhibition.” The Art Amateur: A Monthly Journal Devoted to Art in the Household (December 1893): 3. 

iv Ibid. 

v Cited after the English translation in William Hagans and Willow Hagens, Zorn in America: A Swedish Impressionist of the Gilded Age (Chicago: Swedish-American Historical Society in cooperation with the American Swedish Institute, 2009), 6. 

vi Ibid, 138. vii S. J. Ackerman, “The First Celebrity First Lady: Frances Cleveland,” Washington Post, July 3, 2013, accessed June 1, 2020,

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