Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Northern Light: Anders Zorn in San Francisco

Walk, Anders Zorn, 1906 (photo in public domain).
I traveled to San Francisco last weekend to visit friends and see two exhibitions: Anders Zorn at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and David Hockney at the DeYoung. Different in style, scope, and scale, they were both worth the trip.

Aside from painting and teaching, visiting museums is one of my favorite pastimes, and the Palace of the Legion of Honor did not disappoint. The Zorn show included 100 works of watercolor and oil paintings, prints, and a few small bronze statuettes.

Anders Zorn (1860-1920) was a Swedish painter whose career rivaled that of his contemporaries, including French impressionists like Claude Monet and the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent. Zorn began painting at an early age, mastering watercolors while in his teens. At the height of his career, in the early 1900s, he was reportedly earning $15,000 per week from his portraits, including three of our American presidents; a large, casual portrait of Theodore Roosevelt was included in this exhibit.

Summerdance, Anders Zorn
(photo in public domain)

His watercolors demonstrate complete confidence in his palette, from which he captures the beauty of skin tones suffused in a softly dispersed light. He mastered the art of painting water, posing figures and boats in compositions which feature the complex surface and depths of the waters around them. He moved on to oil painting as he traveled through Europe and Algeria, interacting with other artists and gaining increasingly significant portrait commissions as well as capturing the customs, costumes, and landscapes.

There was a series of stunning nude figures in the landscape, often portrayed bathing in the cold northern lakes of Scandinavia. It was interesting to see them as prints and also as larger oil paintings. Zorn was equally adept at landscapes and still life work, but for me, his figures were the most breathtaking. In addition to what might be considered “celebrity portraits,” he devoted his energies toward capturing the culture and people of the rural Swedish countryside where he grew up, and this legacy is a gift to us today.

For icing on the cake, there was a small Matisse exhibit next door. After the light-infused impressions of Zorn, Matisse’s works seem shocking with their the flat surfaces and brilliant, gaudy colors. The contrast gives a sense of the shock to the art world when Matisse first presented his work, and a visit to the two shows is like a condensed trip into art history.
And now for something completely different:
Portrait of Lydia Delectorskaya by
Henri Matisse (

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