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 fifth and final in a series of posts focusing on the exhibition.
This week, we’ll wrap up our consideration of the prints of Anders Zorn with a look at one of his favorite subjects: the female nude.
In 1888, Zorn became one of the first artists to paint nude women outdoors in a publicly accessible setting. Before this time, if an artist wanted to show a nude out-of-doors, the proper thing was to sketch or paint the outdoor setting and then add the nude from a model later in the privacy of the studio.
How different was Zorn’s use of the female nude? Just compare the 1875 painting Nymph of the Hunt with Fauns by Swedish artist Julius Kronberg (1850–1921) with Zorn’s copy in watercolor, Love Nymph from 1885, both in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.
Both nudes are idealized, with their porcelain-like pale skin and youthful faces. But although the woman in Kronberg’s painting is presented as a passive subject for viewing—she appears to be asleep, her head to one side, her arm protecting her chest just a bit, and her legs modestly entwined—Zorn’s nude meanwhile is alert and inviting—she is awake and looks directly at the viewer, her arm flung apart in welcome, and her legs apart. What a difference!
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that, although he and his wife Emma were devoted to each other, Zorn was very much a lady’s man and was known for his many affairs.
A few years after he made the copy of Kronberg’s painting, Zorn began painting nude female models outside. He was frustrated with the results when he posed the model. It was only after he allowed her to act naturally that he was satisfied with the result. In his memoir he wrote:
“I tried … to place my model in various positions to achieve this or that effect. But it was first when she was allowed to rest and felt unobserved that I discovered my painting.”
It is this new “type” of nude that Zorn enjoyed painting and that found a ready audience. She is powerful and fertile. She is unconscious of her sensuality. Consequently, she is not intimidating, in direct contrast to the “New Woman” who wanted to be a man’s equal (e.g. Girl with a Cigarette).
Although you’d think that these non-studio nudes would raise eyebrows, in general they were lauded and collected. They were better accepted in Europe, where an oil version of Une premiere, which you can see here in a watercolor, was the only Swedish painting awarded a first-class medal at the Paris World’s Fair in 1889. It may have been helpful that the scene is one of motherly love: the woman is encouraging her son to enter the water. Zorn’s new nude was at home in the Swedish landscape while still being part of a larger artistic tradition.
In the U.S., both Isabella Stewart Gardner and wife of Chicago philanthropist Charles Deering purchased a nude from Zorn. This does not mean, however, that his new approach to this age-old subject was without controversy. In 1896, a traveling show of Zorn’s work was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago. That institution’s board voted to remove a painting of a nude. It is interesting to note, however, that the tour included Saint Louis, Cincinnati, Boston, and New York, where everything was shown without incident!
Zorn’s prints featuring nudes were extremely popular with collectors and often sold for top dollar. The demand for the subject helped fuel his prolific output, but as always, Zorn liked to use the etchings to set up challenges for himself.
For instance, in Ripples in the Water (left), you can see how Zorn is working out how to show the women’s shadow as it is disturbed by the ripples in the water. Water was another of Zorn’s preferred subjects. In his paintings he tried to capture the motion of waves, the play of light, the interaction with objects and figures. His interest in water may be one of his closest connections to the French Impressionists.
I always like to read contemporary criticism of the artwork I’m studying, in order to uncover insight into the reception at the time. In 1913, J. Nilsen Laurvik (1877–1953), who was an art critic and independent curator, wrote a monograph on Zorn. It’s actually a short essay that is extremely effusive—you get the sense that a fellow Scandinavian is promoting Zorn to an English-speaking audience. To give you a little bit of context, Laurvik is the one who popularizes the story of Zorn doing Ernest Renan’s portrait in one sitting.
Laurvik’s entire essay is worth a read, and you can do that here via the fantastic website Hathitrust, which offers links to thousands of scanned library holdings. What I appreciate most about his book ia his descriptions of the nudes. Not only can he really turn a phrase, but his interpretation is spot-on. Here are a few quotes:
“With a few swift, sure strokes he gives us the soft contour, the undulating curves of the fresh, firm flesh, of these strong-limped Junos…”
“The nudes of Rembrandt would look singularly coarse and heavy by comparison with these silvery, exquisitely modeled Brunhildas of Zorn, who deport themselves on the sunlit beach or emerge from the enveloping shadow of some protruding cliff with a child-like unconsciousness and a pagan naivete that disarm prudish prejudices.”
“These bid, blond women, whose naked bodies move with unrestrained freedom through the tonic, balsam air, are imbued with a superb, healthy animalism such as has never been depicted in the whole history of art.”
“He delights in portraying these sturdy, flaxen-haired peasants in all the unconscious abandon of their naïve natures, and the series of plates celebrating the intimate life of these people are the most authentic expressions of his art because the most closely related to the mainsprings of his personality.”
Well, Laurvik may be a little over-the-top, but his two main points ring true: 1. Zorn’s nudes convey a sense of being authentic—he is a peasant, just like his models, and he looks at them as part of the group rather than as an artist who is an outsider and 2. Zorn’s nudes offer an anti-cosmopolitan, anti-urban lifestyle that many in the cities of the modern world looked to escape.
After reading this five-part series on Anders Zorn, you may say that it’s incredible that the artist’s fame essentially ended with his death in 1920. Believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened. Except in his native Sweden, his name fell from prominence and he was only known by the art historians who studied the period.
Zorn’s talent is evident, but I think that his successful career was helped by an interesting combination of factors: personality (he was outgoing, intelligent, and a great guest at parties); life story (he was an illegitimate country boy who made good); unusual origin (he was an outsider as a Swede, but that makes him interesting); style (he pushed the boundaries just enough to be modern); and innovation (he reinvented the female nude). During his lifetime, he, and his wife Emma, were adept at promoting his art and his story.
I’m happy to report that the appreciation of Zorn’s full career has grown in the last few years, leading to two major traveling exhibitions. One was organized by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the other by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (Both of which have beautiful catalogues in English if you’d like to learn more.)
In some ways, I think that it is the prints—with their bold compositions and active line—that gives us the best sense of Anders Zorn’s virtuosity as an artist. From the time he was a boy growing up on his grandmother’s farm in Sweden, he was someone who was driven to capture the world around him. It’s telling that although Zorn knew that he could make a lot of money from his prints, and that he use them to spread his name far and wide, he always claimed that he made etchings for enjoyment, as a pastime. It makes sense, then, to use these etchings to get to know this artist who was once so famous but who is now so little known.
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.