In 1860, Anders Zorn was born out of wedlock in a cowshed in rural Sweden and never met his father. While a student in Stockholm, he began his career by painting portraits of the dead to make ends meet.
In his journeys throughout North America, Zorn painted portraits in California and stayed in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He also spent time in Philadelphia, Princeton, New Jersey, New Orleans, San Antonio, and Miami. He even ventured to Cuba and Mexico. Of all the countries Zorn traveled to, including lengthy stays in England, France, Spain, and Germany, he enjoyed the greatest patronage for his portraits and the largest market for his etchings in the United States.
The Swedish artist painted portraits of President’s Cleveland and Taft. The Taft portrait hangs in the White House, where Zorn also etched President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. Zorn painted Vice-Presidents James S. Sherman and Charles Dawes, along with a number of politicians and statesmen. Among them were Senator Nelson Aldrich, who was instrumental in developing the Federal Reserve System, and Secretary of State John Hay, who as a young man was a private secretary to President Lincoln.
Zorn’s portraits of American men of commerce include such Gilded Age figures as industrialists Andrew Carnegie, brewer Adolphus Busch, Robert S. Brookings, of the Brookings Institution, Wall Street banker Solomon Loeb, plumbing mogul Richard T. Crane, and Charles Deering, the first chairman of International Harvester.
Zorn captured elegant likenesses of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose museum in Boston contains works by Zorn, and Mrs. Potter Palmer, a prominent Chicagoan. Architect Daniel Burnham, artist John White Alexander, and author Grace Thompson Seton are included on the list of Zorn’s American subjects.
The Swede was far from the typical European "brush for hire" artists who were briefly in America for lucrative portrait commissions. Zorn developed close friendships with many of his American subjects, particularly President Cleveland, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Charles Deering.
Zorn was not bound exclusively to portraying rich and powerful people, as confirmed by his etchings of French poet Paul Verlaine, sculptor Auguste Rodin, and American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
The artist’s paintings of nudes en plein air in the Stockholm Archipelgo and his depiction of peasants from his native Dalarna counterbalance his portraits of powerful Europeans and Americans.
In coming to the United States, where nearly twenty-five percent of the population of his region emigrated for better opportunities, Zorn discovered that the values his peasant grandfather taught him–honesty and hard work–were the same values he recognized as transforming America into a great nation. Zorn identified wholly with the American experience and many Americans who embraced him in friendship and shared his "self-made" background.
Zorn led a peripatetic existence, remaining in one locale until wanderlust prodded him to move on. His enigmatic personality, full of contradictions, was rooted in his journey from “rags to riches.” Zorn had an enormous appetite for life, resulting in great achievements–and a multitude of excesses.
At his death, Zorn was worth the equivalent of nearly nine million in today’s dollars, all of which he left to the Swedish government.
He traveled a fascinating path from the cowshed of his birth. The legacy he left his hometown of Mora, in central Sweden, is found in The Zorn Museum, which calls itself in Swedish Zornsamlingarna (Zorn Collections) because of the large extent of Zorn’s collecting interests.
Along with his own art, there is a significant collection of Rembrandt etchings, paintings, and sculptures by other artists, antiquities, a silver collection, a textile collection, Zorn’s own furniture designs, an extensive library, and even a collection of medieval Swedish timber structures.
The Zorn Museum was founded in 1939, nineteen years after the artist’s death in 1920.