Rediscovering an art star

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April 2013 |

In recent decades, few provinces of human creativity have fallen into swifter or more thorough disrepute than the society portrait. So steeply have its fortunes declined that the latest generation might be surprised to learn that this genre once held a position of signal honor among the varied forms of painting. Indeed, a list of all the masters who contributed to this now demoted discipline, from Titian and Veronese to Rubens and Gainsborough, would amount to nothing less than a history of Western painting itself.

In the works of the Swedish artist Anders Zorn, the subject of a small retrospective at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (to May 13), we bear witness to what was probably the last moment when high art and society portraiture coincided in Western culture. The ex­hibition centers around Zorn's depictions of Mrs. Gardner, but it includes other sitters as well as self-portraits, genre scenes, and nudes in landscapes. It also draws attention to the museum's seventy-thousand-square-foot addition, designed by Renzo Piano in his sig­nature modernist idiom, that opened last year beside the famous Venetian palace at Fenway Court, which was built for Mrs. Gardner in 1902.

As to when and why the society portrait began to fall from grace, the answer is not mysterious in the slight­est degree. By the mid-nineteenth century, with the emergence of the avant-garde, painting as an art began to part ways with painting as a trade or profession. Surely portraits of the rich and famous were executed by the modernists, from Manet and Renoir to Picasso and Dalí. But as striking as their master­pieces might be, these men were not portraitists so much as artists whose paintings were sometimes por­traits. From a formalist perspective, it mattered little whether Manet painted Victorine Meurent or a bowl of plums, whether Picasso drew Stravinsky or a mino­taur: the point was formal validity more than the traditional ambitions of portraiture. Much the same could be said for David Hockney and Chuck Close in more recent years.

Although Anders Zorn has been largely forgotten by the general public, at the turn of the last century he was one of the most famous artists in the world. It is no inconsiderable measure of his success that, despite his humble origins, he accumulated the wealth to begin a museum in his own honor, the Zornmuseet (in the Mora region of Sweden, where he was born) that still draws visitors almost a century after his death.

Zorn belonged to a generation of inspired portrait­ists-now largely forgotten as well-who were the ornaments of the Belle Époque: among these were Jacques-Emil Blanche, Paul César Helleu, and Giovanni Boldini in France and Joaquin Sorolla and Ignacio Zuloaga in Spain. Of all the artists in that circle, only John Singer Sargent's fame is entirely secure, equaling or surpassing any he achieved in his lifetime.

Zorn and the rest were directly inspired by the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler, the father of the modern society portrait as we now know it. As committed a modernist as Manet or Renoir, Whistler was the first to turn the rebellious aesthetic of impres­sionism into the stuff of status and wealth, a trans­valuation that would define the works of Zorn and Sargent as well. If the portraits of Manet and Renoir existed in a parallel universe to the society portraits of the Third Republic and the Victorian age-those stolid, flat and slightly obtuse images-the works of Whistler and Zorn were destined to supplant them. 

The artists of the older manner, especially the less skillful among them, approached their subject fron­tally: a lingering trace of romanticism might soften the realism that the age required, but the images were meant to awe the observer through the varied attributes of the sitter's wealth and power and breeding. By contrast, Zorn's portrait of George Peabody Gardner, the nephew of Isabella's husband, reveals its subject in no posture of greatness, fortitude, or industry (Fig. 3). Rather we see him at his leisure: resting his billiard stick against the side of a pool table, he turns to greet the viewer, who has come upon him unawares. Zorn follows Whistler in capturing his subject obliquely in the incidental act of vitality, as the elements of genre painting infiltrate the standard ambitions of portraiture. For Whistler and his follow­ers, such indirection is the essence of glamour and grace: although Gardner is doing nothing more edifying than smoking the pipe he holds in his hand, how admirable he seems! He wears a tailored gray suit with a lavender cravat and a gold watch chain at his waist, but the jacket lies open as he draws one hand behind him. And yet, as Zorn has composed the image, the slightly skewed composition conveys infinitely more status and taste than could ever be found in the con­ventional portraits of his contemporaries. Down to the dreariest and most degraded society portraits of more recent times, that indirection, which was once so fresh and vital in the works of Zorn and Sargent, remains the entrenched and implicit trope of the genre.

By the time Zorn painted Isabella Stewart Gardner and George Peabody Gardner he was already a highly successful artist. Indeed, suc­cess came to him so early that he appears never to have struggled at all. He was still in his mid-twenties when the Swedish government purchased Our Daily Bread, a peasant scene influenced by the con­temporary Hague school in Holland. From then on, in very short order, Zorn would be known interna­tionally as the face of Swedish contemporary art. This became literally true only a few months after the purchase, when the directors of the Uffizi in Florence, having decided to expand and update their illustrious gallery of self-portraits, commissioned one from Zorn (Fig. 1). The resulting painting, included in the pres­ent exhibition, is a work of astonishing assurance. Zorn looks to his left, beyond the viewer and the boundaries of the canvas, presumably to the model whose bust he is molding out of clay in the painting. With his gray suit, blue foulard, and stiff collar, he seems overdressed for the task at hand. And he is not above including, on his lapel, a small dash of red that contemporaries would have instantly recognized as the insigne of the French Legion d'Honneur.

Soon Zorn would accumulate an illustrious inter­national roster of patrons who kept him richly employed for the remainder of his days. As such he may fairly lay claim to being one of the first international art stars, if not the very first, dividing his time between Stockholm and Paris, London, Boston, and San Francisco. 

As it turned out, the Chicago World's Colum­bian Exposition of 1893 was the occasion of his first encounter with Isabella Gardner. It took place in the three Swedish galleries of the Fine Arts Building, which Zorn had been asked to curate. As he re­counted the meeting in his memoirs, some twenty years later, "A woman dressed in black came in and looked around my rooms. She stopped in front of my ‘Omnibus,' turned to me, pointed at the paint­ing in question. ‘I want to have that painting. May I buy it?' ‘Yes,' I answered. ‘Who is Zorn?' ‘I am.' ‘Oh, you! I feel that either we will soon become enemies, or also forever, very, very good friends. Come to tea with me this afternoon.'" He went and, forever after, he would be known as Mrs. Gardner's "faithful painter."

The Omnibus, which Gardner bought for $1,600, was painted in 1892 and fulfills the modernist injunc­tion to portray contemporary life. Its protagonist is a young woman in the foreground, wearing a black overcoat. Behind her we see the carriage's wood-framed windows, as a stray shaft of sunlight falls ingeniously across her face. Receding into the background on her left are another woman, a dozing laborer, and a bourgeois man in a top hat. The Omnibus was the first of many works by Zorn that Gardner acquired and hung prominently in her Venetian palazzo in Boston. In all she owned five of Zorn's oil paintings, six drawings, and seventy-eight etchings.

When it came to portraying Gardner, however, Zorn ran into some difficulties. Although he wished to paint her almost as soon as they had finished hav­ing tea together, it would prove something of a chal­lenge to capture the mercurial essence of the woman's alternately winsome and imperious character. There were several false starts. In the earlier of the portraits in the present show, two variants of the same etching from 1894, the collector is seated in a Savonarola chair and dressed in layers of heavy black clothing (Fig. 4). She appears neckless and very nearly over­whelmed by the funereal weeds that engulf her. Given the jittery mass of lines that compose her figure, one is hard put not to think of Poe's Raven as depicted by Manet. The avian analogy is hardly in­hibited by the feathered crest that fans out oddly above her head.

Far more flattering is a portrait made a few months later in Venice (Fig. 5), where Gardner invited the painter to join her and her husband at the Palazzo Barbaro, which she had rented. The revolution-if so it may be called-that Whistler initiated in society portraiture and that is fully borne out in this slightly later work, consisted above all in seeking to capture the sitter's elusive character by discarding the inveterate postures and patterns of traditional portraiture and by reinventing everything in response to the sitter's vital presence. The darksome earlier etchings, done in Boston, included Gardner's coat of arms in order to impress the local Brahmins. This slightly later work stands in complete contrast: it is as though, amid the splendors of Venice, both the painter and the sitter were liberated from the oppressive spirit of New Eng­land. Shedding the dark clothing of the earlier work, Gardner appears before us in a blaze of white drapery, while her bare arms are thrust outward-as though she were trying to steady herself-toward the windows of the balcony behind her, which shimmers in the moonlight reflected off the canal.

It should be observed in passing that an important subchapter of Zorn's career, his scenes of rural life, is also represented in the Gardner collection by the exquisite Morning Toilet (or With His Mother) from 1888 (Fig. 8). Painted outdoors on a little island in the Stockholm archipelago, it skillfully depicts water and pebbles in the foreground, while at the top of the canvas a naked mother and her toddler son are wading beside some rocks. This work compares favorably with Sargent's fine depictions of riverbeds and aquatic scenery.  

Thanks in large measure to Gardner's wholehearted embrace of the painter, Zorn would go on to ever greater success, painting the portraits of some of the most illustrious Americans of the Gilded Age, among them Theodore Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland. If the truth be told, however, the other portraits in the present exhibition (those of Mrs. Potter Palmer, Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon, and Freida Schiff) are charm­ing, but they do not always exhibit that composi­tional brilliance, that improvisational inventiveness, that definitive and commanding theatrical tact, that has procured for John Singer Sargent a measure of posthumous fame that has thus far eluded the other society portraitists of his day.

One instance, however, in which Zorn clearly rivals Sargent at his best is a late self-portrait-and a master­piece-that unfortunately is not in the present show (Fig. 9). It was painted in 1915, when Zorn was fifty-five and had six years to live. Far stouter than when we last encountered him in the self-portrait of 1889, he has clearly been living well. A cigarette dangles languidly from the thick fingers of his left hand, while a dazzling russet suit strains to cover his ample Rabelaisian girth. He looks for all the world like some ancient Silenus in modern garb, omnivorous, deeply happy, and wildly successful in the ways of society. In this one work, Zorn unloads all the tricks of his trade in the hopes of flatter­ing the sitter (himself) and also of endearing him to the viewer and framing him in a striking and unforgettable visual context. And in so doing, he has achieved some­thing far beyond the skills of all but the most gifted portraitists of succeeding generations.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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