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, this is the first time ever that they have been on view at the same time. This is the third in a series of posts focusing on the exhibition.
Paris in the 1880’s was like no other place.
Citizens from all over France joined with immigrants from all over the world. Some flocked there to take advantage of new opportunities in industry, others to experience an avant-garde culture. The population more than doubled in the second half of the nineteenth century.
New entertainment venues popped up to cater to the masses. Circuses, dance halls, cabarets, theaters, operas, museums (including the first wax museum in Paris) added to the excitement of the city.
Meanwhile, Napoleon III, the Emperor of France, hired an urban planner who changed the entire look of the city. A warren of medieval buildings was transformed into a modern city with wide boulevards.
Paris was experiencing the growth of a modern urban center–and all the problems and benefits of that growth. It is probably not surprising that visual artists found inspiration with new subject matter and developed innovative ways to depict it.
Anders Zorn (Swedish, 1860–1920) made Paris his home between 1886 and 1896. Accordingly, his artistic output during this period shows the influence of the modern city around him.
Take, for instance, his print Girl with a Cigarette II (left). This young lady is a “modern girl,” one who smokes in public and doesn’t care what others think! In a way, Zorn presents her as a symbol of the cultural changes of the late nineteenth century. He wrote that his model for this image was an American who had moved to Paris in order to take advantage of the excitement that the city had to offer.
Also, Girl with a Cigarette II lets us talk about how Zorn’s etchings related to his paintings. He did make prints of the same subjects as his paintings. The prints, however, are not reproductive—in other words, he wasn’t looking to create a copy of the painting. As a painter-etcher, he saw etching as a completely different media. It was a way to explore his artistic interests, to challenge his talent, and to allow him to depict what he saw in a new way.
For example, compare the etching of Girl with a Cigarette II and a painting of the same subject (right). Three things immediately tell you that Zorn did not consider his etchings to be reproductions of his paintings.
First, the etching is dated earlier than the painting! He made his second version of Girl with a Cigarette (notice the “II” at the end of the title) the year before the painting.
Second, note that the etching is reversed from the painting. This is because Zorn worked the plate the same way that he eventually painted the canvas, probably using the same sketches for both. When the print was pulled, it ended up reversed. Clearly, the direction that the girl faced was not the important part; the success of each individual work was.
Finally, consider the background of each image. In the painting, the background is very dark. In the print, the background is almost all the light color of the bare paper. In his print, Zorn recalls the etching style of Rembrandt, and making the most of the dramatic contrasts of light and dark that etching afforded.
Just think: etching challenges the artist because there are only two colors—that of the ink and that of the paper. The amount of ink varies in an etching depending on the depth of the lines on the plate.
This is very different from painting. For Zorn, painting meant broad brushstrokes and planes of color merging into one another. Etching, on the other hand, meant vigorous lines. By exploring how to vary the colors and effects by changing the depth of the lines, playing with the distance between them, and using a crosshatch technique, Zorn created images from seemingly unrelated strokes and shapes on the plate.
As I mentioned before, as a painter-etcher, Zorn was continually setting out problems to solve in his etchings. The modern life of Paris in the late nineteenth century provided artists with one such challenge: how to show an array of light effects.
For example, the print below, called Effet de Nuit III (Effect of Night), really tests his printmaking skill by showing three different light levels: the dark of nighttime outside the building (upper right); the glow of the gas streetlamps (at the top right), and the glare of the electric lamps inside the café that eliminates most of the detail (the left hand side).
Within this setting, Zorn shows a extravagantly dressed prostitute. Many avant-garde artists were using prostitutes as subject manner, exposing this seedy side of modern life as never before.
So, now that we’ve seen what Zorn did in Paris, next time we’ll see how returning to his homeland in Sweden affected his artwork.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of 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.