‘I like to turn my portraits into paintings,’ Anders Zorn wrote to his future wife Emma Lamm in the spring of 1885 (Quoted in Zorn, Självbiogrfiska antekingar, 177, endnote 18). A virtuoso watercolorist, bravura painter and etcher, Zorn rose from modest beginnings in the Swedish countryside to travel the world, painting some of the most sought after portraits of the Gilded Age, both in Europe and abroad. His portraits were renowned not only for their brilliant ability to capture the textures of skin and fabric, but also because his more informal ‘milieu’ style of portrait painting did indeed elevate his portraits into something more than just a posed depiction of his sitter. Zorn was able to capture not just a subject’s likeness, but something of their lives and personalities as well, giving his portraits a vivacity and pictorial quality unrivaled in his era.
Zorn’s talent as a portraitist was recognized from his earliest days as a student at the Academy, and the artist was receiving portrait commissions before he had even finished his formal training. But it was the Realist innovation in portrait painting that Zorn embraced during the 1880s that would help elevate him into one of the most famous artists of his day. Drawing inspiration from other Swedish portraitists of the time, Zorn moved away from showing his subjects posed against a neutral background, instead depicting them as figures set within an environment perceived as natural to them, captured in the midst of an implied activity and posed in a much less formal manner to help maintain this naturalist illusion. Among the most elegant early examples of this type of composition within Zorn’s oeuvre was his portrait of the financier Ernest Cassel, painted in London in 1886 (fig. 1). It was through his relationship with Cassel that Zorn would receive the commission for the present work, painted in much the same Realist style.
Zorn first met Cassel through the artist’s uncle-by-marriage, Henrik Davidson. Though Zorn was not born into a family of particular means, his wife Emma came from an upper-middle class Jewish family in Stockholm, and his engagement and marriage to her opened many doors for the young artist, as did her insistence on taking an active role in promoting his career. Cassel was one of the first and most important acquaintances Zorn made through Emma’s family, and he became one of the young artist’s key patrons. In 1888, Zorn and Emma arrived in Paris, where the artist would make the reputation that would propel him to the height of the art world by the turn of the century. Upon their arrival, the artist presented himself at the home of Ernest May, a Parisian banker and art collector, with a letter of introduction from Cassel indicating that Cassel had commissioned Zorn to paint the four May children as Cassel’s Christmas present to his dear friend May. The Mays must have been impressed with Zorn’s work, as the commission for the present picture of the three children of Georges May, Ernest’s older brother, came the following year.
Painted in the May family home on the Avenue Hoche in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, near the Arc de Triomphe, the present watercolor is a magnificent example of both Zorn’s bravura, Impressionist-inspired brushwork and his skill at capturing his sitters elegantly placed within their milieu. The two girls, Mathilde and Cécile, who were 18 and 17 respectively at the time of this portrait, are seated in the foreground at a scalloped-edged table topped with books. Both girls are shown reading, though the girl on the left glances up from her book, fixing her gaze in the middle distance to her right as if taking a moment to reflect on what she has read. The girls’ younger brother, Pierre, then 14 years old, sits behind his older sisters at a desk, his back to the viewer. He is also depicted reading, and while he is clearly not the center of the portrait in the same way his fashionable sisters are, Zorn still captures the individuality of his features. The light coming through the window to his left backlights the sweeping blonde lashes of his downturned eyes, and reflects off his cheek which faces the viewer, the shape of which suggests the slightest hint of remaining baby fat, an illustration of his youth.
The matching white dresses of the two girls, subtly heightened by thin lines of gray and transparent touches of reddish-orange flowers, are brilliantly set off against the myriad warm tones of the background – a symphony of washes of reds, yellows, browns, and oranges all blended to a harmonious whole. Between the two central figures, Zorn further demonstrates his mastery of difficult watercolor technique by centrally placing the window with its sheer dressing, through which the artist has captured the subtle outlines of distant buildings and the curling elements of the wrought iron balustrade outside the window. Finally, Zorn added a few sparing touches in white gouache to the areas of greatest reflected light to add a last element of depth – emphasizing the edge of the table, Pierre’s collar, and some of the folds in highest relief on the girls’ dresses with this different element of both texture and light.
In all of his watercolor portraits, the ambitious young Zorn wanted to demonstrate his mastery of this complex and unforgiving medium to create dazzling effects strong enough to compete with oil paintings. It is impossible to look at the artist’s watercolors and not be captivated by the virtuosic details of texture, movement, light and color the artist was able to capture. With his sure eye and confident technique, Zorn’s watercolors are a brilliant example of why he was, in his time, among the most celebrated artists in the world.
We are grateful to Dr. Johan Cederlund of the Zornmuseet for confirming the authenticity of this work.