Feature

Anders Zorn: A European Artist Seduces America

The celebrated painter came to America in the 1890s on a mission to outdo his rival, fellow portraitist John Singer Sargent.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, BostonThrough May 13

Anders Zorn had a message for America: “Swedes do it better,” said Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe. The celebrated painter (1860–1920) came to this country in the 1890s on a mission: “to out-paint, out-ingratiate, and generally out-razzle-dazzle” his rival, fellow portraitist John Singer Sargent. This was a lofty goal, no doubt, but the Gardner’s “ravishing” new show finally lets him accomplish it. Sargent may remain more famous in America, but he rarely matched the vibrancy of Zorn’s work. In the 24 paintings exhibited here, his “fresh, fluent, flyaway style” suggests “Zorro with a paintbrush.” Look closely at 1892’s The Omnibus, a “bravura” depiction of passengers on a horse-drawn bus, and “then, if you can, tell me you’re quite sure Sargent was better.”

I’ll do so gladly, said Greg Cook in WBUR.org. Zorn was a talented painter, but Sargent was sharper. “Oh my goodness, how Sargent makes it look effortless, like he never lays down an errant brushstroke,” even while achieving probing psychological effects. Zorn instead created “the sort of work you glance at with brief pleasure on the way to the big names.” But he did leave us with at least one show-stopping portrait, said Erin Greene in BostonMagazine.com. Both he and Sargent painted their mutual benefactor—Isabella Stewart Gardner, the founder of the Gardner museum. While Sargent’s 1888 portrait, found elsewhere in the building, shows a carefully posed and proper-looking matron, Zorn’s “stunning” study is far more playful. Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, from 1894, depicts the philanthropist in a doorway, arms outstretched, with the dark colors in the background “adding richness and warmth.” Gardner was 54, but “she is rendered timeless.”

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