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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.)