Artists from Turner to Monet have been praised for their paintings of water, but a new exhibit at the Legion of Honor shows that a gilded-age Swedish master may have trumped them all.
On view through Feb. 2, “Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter” features 100 works by Zorn, including watercolor and oil paintings, sculptures and etchings.
Zorn — who was born in 1860 and studied in Stockholm before moving to Paris and traveling the globe — was a rock star in his day, in as much demand by the international elite as John Singer Sargent.
Like Sargent, Zorn became famous for his grand portraits of society globe-trotters, including some in the exhibit. But his watercolors, whether precise or impressionistic, are where his jaw-dropping technique really shines.
It is hard to imagine water painted more sensitively or more accurately than in “Summer Vacation,” completed when Zorn was just 26.
A man steers a row boat towards the pier, where a genteel woman in white waits in her bustled dress. The sky is overcast and the water — an endless sea of glassy ripples — vacillates between metallic greens and grays.
“Lapping Waves,” painted a year later, is another stunner. The boat at the painting’s focal point appears to move, pitching this way and that in a pool of mercurial shadows.
Zorn’s subjects vary, and his lush, verdant meadows and forests are as alive as his aquatic scenes. Flowers and foliage in watercolors “The Thorn Bush” and “The Flowering Meadow” veritably pop out of the frame.
A portrait of a young girl in profile, “Christina Morphy,” shimmers. Her long hair flows over her dress in gauzy, ethereal layers, and a strange, 3-D, spectral presence imbues the picture.
While visiting the southwest English coast with his wife in 1887, Zorn was persuaded to turn his hand to oils by English painter Alice Miller. His first attempt — a quiet, deeply contemplative portrait of his wife, Emma, reading — is one of the show’s highlights.
Additional great oils are Zorn’s brewery paintings and large country scenes — most notably the fleet-footed dancers in “Dance in the Gopsmor Cottage” — painted after he returned to rural Sweden during his twilight years.
Zorn was an artist with a capital “A,” boasting a robust, commanding and virile presence in his self-portraits. The show culminates in the large oil “Self-Portrait in Red” of the artist at age 55.
Zorn painted himself in an alternate version, still in Sweden, smoking and wearing a wolf coat. His 1890 new year’s card, an etching on view, juxtaposes his self-portrait next to one by Rembrandt. Had the old Dutch master seen Zorn’s stormy etching “Annie” — one of the best works in the show — he might have found the cheeky move justified.
IF YOU GO
Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter
Where: Legion of Honor Museum, 100 34th Ave., S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Feb. 2
Admission: $11 to $16
Contact: (415) 750-3600, legionofhonor.famsf.org