Anders Zorn – The “Swedish Impressionist”

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Anders Zorn was a remarkable Swedish painter known mostly for his nude female portraits painted with virtuoso brushwork and luminous colors. He is often referred to as the "Swedish Impressionist".

In this post I provide some of the key facts about his life and art, breakdown his style and technique and take a closer look at some of his stunning paintings.

Anders Zorn, Self-Portrait, 1889
Anders Zorn, Self-Portrait, 1889

Key Facts About Anders Zorn

  • Zorn was born on 18 February 1860 in Sweden.
  • He demonstrated a remarkable skill from an early age and gained attention for his depictions of horses and human figures which he carved in wood. He initially planned on being a sculptor, but ended up favoring painting.
  • He studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts from 1875 to 1880, but his attendance was poor and he later admitted that he did not have much to learn from the Academy.
  • In 1880, Zorn exhibited his watercolor painting, In Mourning, which depicts a young girl under a veil. The painting is a sensitive display of colors and brushwork which paved the way for Zorn's prolific career. He was praised for his skill by the public and critics, including leading Swedish critic Carl Nyholm who praised Zorn's work in the Official Swedish Government Gazette.
Anders Zorn, In Mourning, 1880
Anders Zorn, In Mourning, 1880
  • He went on to paint many of society's leading figures, including King Oscar II of Sweden, Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland and William H. Taft.
Anders Zorn, U.S. President William Howard Taft, 1911
Anders Zorn, U.S. President William Howard Taft, 1911
  • He is renowned for his depictions of nude female figures. With his soft edges and loose brushwork, the figures seem to dissolve into the surrounding environment.
Anders Zorn, Havsnymf, 1894
Anders Zorn, Havsnymf, 1894
  • At the age of 29, he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur at the Exposition Universelle (a Legion of Honour at the Paris World Fair).
  • He gained international success for his watercolors, oil paintings and also etchings. Below is an etching of him and his wife Emma which demonstrates a remarkable likeness with just light and dark tones.
Anders Zorn, Zorn and His Wife, 1890
Anders Zorn, Zorn and His Wife, 1890
  • By his mid-20s, Zorn exuded self-confidence, claiming to have surpassed his predecessors and contemporaries.

“…I never spent much time thinking about others’ art. I felt that if I wanted to become something, then I had to go after nature with all my interest and energy, seek what I loved about it, and desire to steal its secret and beauty. I was entitled to become as great as anyone else, and in that branch of art so commanded by me, watercolour painting, I considered myself to have already surpassed all predecessors and contemporaries…” Anders Zorn (from Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter).

  • In some of his paintings, he made use of an extremely limited palette which included just yellow ochre, ivory black, vermilion and white (the "Zorn palette").
  • He established the Bellman Prize in 1920, which is a prize for "an outstanding Swedish poet" awarded by the Swedish Academy. The prize was funded by the Emma and Anders Zorn's Donation Fund Foundation.
  • In his later years, he suffered blood poisoning and died on 22 August 1920, aged 60.
Anders Zorn's Atelier at His House, ZorngåRden in Mora
Anders Zorn's Atelier at His House, ZorngåRden in Mora

Style and Technique Breakdown

Zorn combined loose, virtuoso brushwork with skillful use of drawing, value and edges. His paintings appear incredibly realistic, yet they have a sense of effortlessness about them, similar to the paintings of Joaquín Sorolla and Sir Arthur Streeton.

The painting below has a very painterly feel to it. Here are some things to note:

  • If you look up close, the strokes appear broad and general. But as a whole, it appears incredibly realistic.
  • Notice how the edges around the subject's main hand in the middle and his right arm are relatively soft compared to the rest of the painting. This suggests movement as the subject plays the violin.
  • The dark parts of the subject dissolve into the background.
  • The vivid red draws your attention towards the subjects head.
Anders Zorn, Musician, 1914
Anders Zorn, Musician, 1914

In relation to color, Zorn is renowned for his use of a limited palette of colors. His "Zorn palette" is taught in many of the top art schools to help students learn about color theory and mixing. However, it is a common misconception that he only used these colors. Many of his paintings suggest the use of other auxiliary colors. Either way, his paintings for the most part show a restrained and controlled use of color.

The painting below features a relatively limited palette of yellows, reds and oranges, but he was able to make those colors really "glow". It just goes to show what is possible when you put the right colors in the right places.

Anders Zorn, A Girl with a Dog, 1884
Anders Zorn, A Girl with a Dog, 1884

Zorn's compositions often appear natural and organic, with his subjects seemingly unaware of his presence, going about their day-to-day lives. He clearly had an eye for composition and painting in general. Many of his paintings break the standard "rules" of composition, but they still seem to work.

Anders Zorn, Bread Baking, 1889
Anders Zorn, Bread Baking, 1889

A Closer Look at Some of Anders Zorn's Paintings

Park Alhambra, 1887

This is a delicate watercolor painting which features a couple sharing a kiss, a wondering cat and an unusual composition. The couple is tucked in the corner of the painting and there is a sense of calmness, unaware they are the subject of the painting. In terms of technique, it seems Zorn laid down general blocks of color then went over the top with the more intricate details (branches, flowers, highlights and accents).

Anders Zorn, Park Alhambra, 1887
Anders Zorn, Park Alhambra, 1887

Our Daily Bread, 1886

Our Daily Bread is another intricate watercolor painting. The level of complexity shown in this painting led me to believe it was done in oils on first glance. Zorn clearly had a remarkable level of control and eye for detail. The painting features Zorn's mother sitting at the edge of a path cooking potatoes for the harvesters. She appears to have a strained look on her face. Notice how your eyes are drawn towards the mother with the heightened level of contrast, color and detail compared to the rest of the painting.

Anders Zorn, Our Daily Bread, 1886
Anders Zorn, Our Daily Bread, 1886

Emma Zorn Reading, 1887

Here is a portrait of Zorn's wife, Emma whilst she was reading. As with many of his portraits, the subject is just going about her life, seemingly unaware of Zorn's presence. Much of the detail has been simplified; notice how he did not attempt to paint the words on the paper and how the wall in the background is nothing but general color shapes. There also seems to be a fish tank in the background with bright, orange goldfish. This contains your attention on the right side of the painting where the subject is also positioned.

Anders Zorn, Emma Zorn Reading, 1887
Anders Zorn, Emma Zorn Reading, 1887

Castles in the Air, 1885

This delicate watercolor painting features an unusual, upward look at the subject (Zorn's wife, Emma) holding a Japanese parasol. The couple married in October 1885, so this may have been painted on their honeymoon. The light is shining through the parasol, bringing to life its decorations.

Anders Zorn, Castles in the Air, 1885
Anders Zorn, Castles in the Air, 1885

Nude Under a Fir, 1892

Here is one of Zorn's many paintings featuring nude female figures in the landscape. The contrast between the lights and darks in this painting are quite stunning; you really get a feel of the bright light from the sun. The subject is painted with soft edges and she seems to blend in with the surrounding environment, rather than stand out from it.

Anders Zorn, Nude Under a Fir, 1892
Anders Zorn, Nude Under a Fir, 1892

(You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I go into more detail on what color is and how to use it effectively in painting.)

Useful Resources

Thanks for Reading!

Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my fundamentals course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

Read more of my articles. 

29 thoughts on “Anders Zorn – The “Swedish Impressionist””

  1. Dan,
    I look forward to your informative and insightful articles. They are well researched and written making it easy for an art neophyte to appreciate the different style and techniques of master artists.
    Thank you for your dedication to the arts.

    Reply
  2. Zorn painted whit Cremnitz white. Titanum white was unknown for artists at that time. He often used the camera to spare time and that is the reason for the limited pallet. Take a look at black and white reproductions of his work and you will see te connection.

    Reply
  3. Thank you. I’m very interested in this limited palette. I’m even seriously considering going to Sweden to see his work. I didn’t know he worked so much in watercolor.

    Reply
  4. Awesome article. Thank you! I just took a weekend workshop using the Zorn palette. Amazed at what one can create with these limited colours. I will definitely incorporate the Zorn palette as part of my skill set.

    Reply
  5. Dan, I’m so happy to have found you. You are a great teacher! Thanks for showing Zorn’s work, including his unbelievable watercolors–it is a joy to see his paintings.

    Reply
  6. Your posts are like taking an Art History course, but far more interesting! Thanks for sharing
    information about artists lives and their work. I look forward to seeing your name in my inbox.

    Reply
  7. How could you not be impressed or even in awe of this mans work ?
    What can you do with so few colours ? Apparently heaps !!
    This is a great post, Thanks Dan.

    Reply
  8. Dan, Thank you for all of your insight and sharing. I hang on your every word and have
    learned so much from your views and descriptions of each artist and their paintings.
    Your paintings are wonderful as well. I am left handed as are you… do we tend to create
    brush strokes with a different angle than a typical right hander???
    Thank you again Dan.

    Reply
    • Thanks Penny! It is possible that we do. My handwriting is shocking, which I blame on being left-handed. So maybe it has an impact on painting? Who knows!

      Dan

      Reply
  9. Helló Dan !
    Köszönöm , hogy olvashatom az oldalt!
    Nagyon hasznos ,és tetszik nekem.
    Zorn palettát magam is használom néha portrékhoz.

    Jó munkát neked !

    Reply
    • Hi There.

      I will translate for everyone else reading:

      “Hello Dan!
      Thank you for reading this page!
      Very useful and I like it.
      I use the Zorn palette myself sometimes for portraits.
      Good job for you!”

      That is great to hear! Keep up the good work.

      Thanks, Dan

      Reply
  10. Thank you for explaining so well. Had the opportunity to visit his museum in Dalarna Sweden and that was a lovely experience. (Also went and saw his contemporary Carl Larsson nearby)

    Reply
  11. Interesting to see the settings and subjects Zorn chose to paint. His limited palette majes me want to explore more of hus work. Thank you for sharing your Art Stirues! I really enjoy them.

    Reply
  12. Thank for introducing Zorn. His watercolours are amazing and I shall use his limited palet in my next efforts. Your contributions to art are remarkable. Do you ever sleep?

    Reply

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