The current exhibition in the European works on paper rotation space (on view until July 31) is Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Painter-Etcher. Featuring all 18 prints in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection by Zorn, the exhibition is the first time ever that they have been on view at the same time. This is the first in a series of posts focusing on the exhibition.
Did you know that Anders Zorn might be the most famous artist you’ve never heard of?
During his career, which spanned about 20 years before and 20 years after 1900, Zorn was in high demand for painted portrait commissions in Europe and in the U.S. In fact, he was in direct competition with John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), one of the best known portrait painters at the turn of the twentieth century.
So, who was Anders Zorn?
Anders Zorn was born in 1860, the son of a German brewer and one of his Swedish employees. His parents were not married, and Zorn’s father was not very involved in his son’s life, although he did leave Zorn a small inheritance when he died.
Zorn was raised by his mother’s parents on their farm, in Mora, about 160 miles northwest of Stockholm. His modest, rural upbringing was to be a major influence upon him throughout his life, and was something of which he was very proud.
His artistic talents appeared early. When a boy, he began carving figures in wood and made sketches. The inheritance from his father meant that, at the age of 15, he was able to enter the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. While still a student there, be began selling his watercolors. Encouraged by his success and unhappy with the coursework at the Academy—which he felt was outdated—Zorn left school before finishing his degree.
In search of an international clientele, he decided to move abroad. He first traveled to London, staying there until 1885. He returned to Sweden to marry, then traveled to Constantinople through Italy and Greece on his honeymoon in 1886. During this time, Zorn continued to focus on watercolor. (Some of my favorite examples are Summer Vacation and Our Daily Bread.) Then, in 1887, Zorn returned to England and ended up in St. Ives in Cornwall. There, two important things happened: he became friends with a number of American artists who made up an artists colony in the village (and they helped him establish contacts with American patrons), and he was introduced to oil painting.
One of his first finished oils was Fishermen at St. Ives, which, in 1888, he showed at the Paris Salon (the official exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts) and sold to the French nation. This coincided with Zorn’s move to Paris, where he really came into his own as an artist. He was clearly influenced by a number of factors from the avant-garde art scene, such as modern life, bold color, and active brushwork. Despite his interest in the art movements of France, he never became part of any one group.
Zorn was particularly popular in the U.S. He made seven extensive visits to fulfill many portrait commissions, such as the great Boston art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, wealthy socialite Virginia Bacon (at right), and three U.S. Presidents (Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt).
So, Zorn’s paintings were very popular and a critical success. He was showing his paintings regularly in the salon in Paris and in international exhibitions. His important role in the art world was recognized by his homeland, which named him Commissioner of the Swedish art exhibition at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and Commissioner of the Swedish art section at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1899.
But although portraits paid many of the bills and made his fame international, Zorn was more than a portrait painter.
Back in 1882, when he a young artist trying to make his way in London, he became friends with a Swedish artist named Axel Herman Haig (1835–1921). It seems only natural that Zorn would find a fellow countryman in an unfamiliar city.
A generation older, Haig had spent most of his career in London. He had trained as an architect, and his talent in drawing led him to specialize in making the detailed views needed for customers to understand architectural plans. He worked for 15 years with English architect William Burges (English, 1827–1881) on projects in the Victorian Gothic Revival style. Two examples of Haig’s lovely watercolors are a tower addition that was part of the renovation of the medieval Cardiff Castle and the campus of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
Haig, however, is probably best known for his large, detailed prints of famous buildings. This second career came after he learned to etch in order to illustrate a book on Scotland’s medieval architecture. These etchings were extremely popular with the public. The Milwaukee Art Museum has one in the collection, which is on view in the exhibition (at left). It shows the Church of St. Francis in Assisi and is a masterpiece both of documentation and of mood.
As you might imagine, it was from Haig that Zorn learned to etch. In fact, Zorn’s first etchings were portraits of his teacher. You can see one of them here, in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. The influence of his teacher’s etching style is clear in the earliest of Zorn’s etchings. There is a soft, moody appearance to the lighting and a velvety look to the ink.
Zorn recognized his debt to Haig, and they remained life-long friends. We are very lucky to have four prints in the collection that are personally inscribed as gifts from Zorn to Haig.
Haig was a founding member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, which strove to raise the status of etching to that of painting and promoted etching as an original artform. They offered opportunities for their members to exhibit prints, which in turn gave aspiring print collectors the chance to purchase them. Although Zorn was not a member of the English group, when he moved to Paris, he became associated with the French version. These “painter-etchers,” saw themselves as part of the tradition of master artists such as Rembrandt, and they used etching to explore and show the world in a new way.
You might be asking at this point, what exactly is an etching?
Etching is a printmaking technique that uses metal plates and acid. The plate, a sheet of copper, is first covered in a layer of acid-resistant material (often containing wax) that is called the ground. The artist uses an etching needle to draw the image through the ground, exposing the copper beneath. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath, which reacts with the metal and “bites” the drawn lines into the copper. Multiple baths can be done to further deepen the cuts into the copper, resulting in darker and more distinct lines in the finished print. After the ground is removed, the plate is spread with ink and then wiped so that only the grooves hold the ink. Dampened paper is placed on top of the plate and both are run through an etching press, transferring the ink to the paper. Here is a great video that shows you how an etching is made.
Etching is a popular printing method with artists because it allows them to draw the image more naturally relative to other printing methods, which require many specialized tools. One of those other types of printmaking is engraving, which we explored in an earlier post on Albrecht Dürer.
Etching and engraving are both a type of printmaking called intaglio. Intaglio is an Italian word used to describe any printing technique that holds the ink in grooves on a plate and requires pressure to transfer the ink to the paper.
In the 19th century, there was a renewed interest in etching, which is often called the etching revival. The painter-etcher movement was one part of this phenomenon. Artists were experimenting in many ways and were attracted to the possibilities of etching. Some artists, such as Charles Meryon (French, 1821–1868) and Félix Bracquemond (French, 1833–1914) worked almost entirely in etching.
Etching is also forgiving, because plates can be reworked after printing a proof, and the process can be combined with other printmaking techniques to achieve a greater range of effects. You can see evidence of this in Zorn’s prints, which includes things like drypoint, aquatint, roulette, and even engraving.
The period’s focus on the artist as creator makes it fitting that the earliest print in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s exhibition is a self-portrait of Anders Zorn (below). He shows himself sitting at a table, at work, intently studying a subject in the distance. He holds a sheet of paper and an etching tool. Just the sliver of a lamp is seen on the right hand side, which casts light upon his work surface. Behind him stands his wife, her hand on hip, looking off in a slightly different direction.
The story of Zorn and his wife is an interesting one. Her name was Emma Lamm, and she came from a wealthy Jewish family in Sweden. The two met and fell in love when Zorn was hired to paint a portrait of Emma in 1881. Their different social statuses—remember, Zorn was the illegitimate son of a brewer who was raised on his grandmother’s farm—resulted in a secret four-year engagement. This long engagement allowed Zorn to establish his career before they wed, in 1885.
It was clear from the start that the marriage formed a powerful business and artistic partnership. Emma was an intelligent, well-connected woman who functioned as her husband’s critic and financial administrator, and she was crucial for forming and maintaining the social contacts with patrons and other artists that are essential for any important artist.
The composition of this print is based upon a self-portrait Rembrandt made that included his own wife, Saskia (see right). This is probably no surprise, since this was a print that was in Zorn’s personal collection of Rembrandt prints; he owned 180 by the time he died.
In both prints, the artist is at work with his wife behind him. In Zorn’s version, however, the setting is more developed, and Emma’s presence is more interesting. You can see the influence of Rembrandt’s technique on Zorn in the use of active lines and crosshatching. It is clear, though, even this early in Zorn’s career, that he approaches the medium with an active and dramatic gesture. He is masterful at using lines and tone to make the image appear almost magically from seeming unrelated shapes. Many critics and collectors saw this as Zorn’s genius.
Another print in the exhibition illustrates an additional Rembrandt technique that Zorn employed: selective finish. This is one of Zorn’s most famous prints, a portrait of the religious historian Ernest Renan (below).
Zorn has chosen to show Renan as a great big man composed of heavy, dark lines; this, in a way, reflects Renan’s importance, for he built his career by writing on heady topics, such as the historical answers for why religion has such power over mankind. From his studies, Renan attempted to form philosophical ideas that would lead to the ideal French political system. Renan was well-known throughout France as a man who helped form French national identity in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Although Renan soon died after Zorn made this print, the scholar is actively thinking with a critical and intelligent mind. The great scholar is still at work; the evidence are in the piles of the books and papers that fill not only his desk but also the mantelpiece behind him. The books and papers are sketched in with as few lines as possible, which illustrates Zorn’s use of selective finish. The lighter areas provide a pleasing visual contrast to the bulky figure of Renan himself.
Zorn was famous for his virtuosity of etching technique. His quick lines and sketchy quality suggested that he would sit down at a plate and dash off an etching in one short burst of action. Indeed, one art critic popularized a story about the portrait of Ernest Renan that clinched Zorn’s genius as an etcher. This story says that Zorn made this etching directly on the plate during a single, one-hour sitting. Although it promoted Zorn as a talented etcher, the story is discounted both by Zorn, who said that he had three sittings with the historian, and by two existing pencil studies.
Now that we’ve gotten an introduction to Zorn, next time we’ll take a closer look at a few more of his etched portraits!
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.