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Anders Zorn and Isabella Gardner, together again

February 28, 2013 11:54 AM  

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Self-Portrait, 1889, from the Galleria deghli Uffizi in Florence, Italy, is one of the 24 paintings in the exhibit of Anders Zorn’s work at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Swedish artist Anders Zorn took America by storm in 1890s. Apparently, American art patrons couldn’t resist his modern edge and with Anders Zorn: A European Artist Seduces America, now at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, we couldn’t either. (With a title like that, who could?)

Zorn gained celebrity with his enigmatic portraits of people in the highest of Belle Époque societies, but it was his experimentation with light and composition that made him an artistic luminary. The show, which opens Thursday, February 28, in the Gardner’s Hostetter Gallery, marks the first time in 25 years that an international loan exhibition of his work is on display in the States. It is also the first historic exhibition to go up in the gallery, which since it opened in January 2012 has only shown contemporary art.

It is fitting that the show is at the Gardner since Isabella Stewart Gardner, who built her palace by the Boston Fens precisely as home for her extensive art collection, was a supporter, and friend, of Zorn. (There is a delightful photograph in the exhibit of Gardner and her husband, Jack, and Zorn and his wife, Emma, cavorting in gondolas in Venice, Italy, in 1894.) Unlike the museum’s historical galleries, which Gardner arranged herself with an eye for the eccentric, placing paintings, drawings, etchings, tapestries, and sculpture from various periods and styles together in intimate galleries and narrow spaces, this exhibit — all art created during her lifetime — is hung cleanly in the spacious boxlike gallery. Each of the exhibit’s 24 paintings (five of which are the museum’s own), drawings, photographs, letters, and gifts Zorn gave Gardner throughout their friendship, is categorized into one of five groups: Society Portraits, Modern Life, Rural Life, In the Studio, and Gardner and Her Circle. Pieces never shown in America, such as Night Effect, 1895, on loan from the Gothenburg Museum of Art in Göteborg, Sweden, and The Ice Skater, 1898, from the Zornmuseet in Mora, Sweden, join items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Worcester Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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Oliver Tostmann, William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection, explains the coloring in the Museum’s Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice, painted by Zorn while traveling with the Gardners in Italy in 1892. To the left is Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon (Virginia Purdy, died 1919), painted in 1897 and on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Zorn made huge developments in the Modern art movement as well as advancements in the independent art market — he left school to create his own portrait business, which thrived on both sides of the Atlantic with an impressive list of clients. “There is a whole world to be discovered when you look at his artwork,” says Oliver Tostmann, the William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection, who has installed exhibitions at the National Gallery in London and the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Braunschweig, Germany. The exhibit’s large-scale paintings especially showcase Zorn’s subtle and refined use of color and his aggressive brushstrokes that make it seem like he painted rapidly. (In fact, he calculated his movements very precisely to figure out the exact stroke he wanted, then executed it quickly).

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Gardners and Zorns in gondolas, Venice is a photograph, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum archives, taken October 13, 1894. Anders Zorn and Isabella Gardner are in the boat on the right, while their spouses, Jack Gardner and Emma Zorn, are in the boat on the left.

But his fame here was not to last. “His career was like a comet,” says Tostmann, explaining that though the artist remains popular to this day in Sweden, his star began to fade in America after World War I. But as comets do, this one has come around again still burning bright.

The museum will hold a series of discussions about the artist this spring. A schedule is at gardnermuseum.org.

The addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in which the Hostetter Gallery is located, opened in January 2012. Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop of Genoa, Italy, and New York, it won the Boston Society of Architects 2012 People’s Choice Award, sponsored by Design New England and boston.com, for best building in Greater Boston.

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