NEW YORK—March begins at the National Academy Museum with a retrospective on Swedish master Anders Zorn (1860–1920) and a smaller exhibition consisting of six large-scale paintings by modern realist painter Philip Pearlstein that spans six decades of his career.
Their simultaneous appearance at National Academy is significant—Zorn earned his renown at a time when figural art was deeply respected by the general public and heavily studied in both European and American art schools. Gilded Age socialites and business tycoons clamored to have their portraits made by the painter with the Midas touch.
Pearlstein, on the other hand, embarked on his quest for figural representation when fashionable artists were preoccupied with abstraction and pop art—they considered mimetic art passé. In the four decades between the time of Zorn’s death and Pearlstein’s second career as a figurative artist in the 1960s, much had been lost in the study of representational art.
Personalities vs. Bodies
In Zorn’s circles, the men are powerful and the women glamorous. Though they paid him posh sums for flattering portraits, none could hide their true selves from the perceptive portraitist.
Elizabeth Sherman Cameron hated her portrait at first—Zorn had captured her characteristic steely gaze a bit too accurately. The plush, rosy reds of Mrs. Richard Howe’s dress and couch give the portrait a bright and cheery air, but also call attention to the short-lived woman’s feverish flush.
I can imagine Grover Cleveland’s patience growing thin, confined to a chair for however long the sitting(s) took—the rotund president looks suffocated and ill at ease in his three-piece suit. (President Taft would look near-bursting when Zorn painted him in 1911.)
Very much unlike Zorn, Pearlstein had no intention of glorifying or even channeling his sitters’ personalities. They laze and languish—people become models, models become figures, figures reduced to shapes rendered in greyed flesh tones, cellulite and all. Placed among all manners of brightly hued kitsch such as a whirligig and a toy plane, Pearlstein’s figures look like objects in a flea market, their eyes shut tight, hoping you, the shopper, will just move on and leave them alone.
Zorn, All Media
Zorn’s famous Gilded Age portraits were painted in oil, but he began as a watercolorist, getting art world attention after his watercolor “In Mourning” showed at the 1800 student exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm. It wasn’t until 1888 when he settled in Paris that he seriously devoted attention to oil painting.
A part of the National Academy exhibit deals with his watercolor landscapes and nudes done during summers spent vacationing with his wife Emma in the Swedish resort town Dalarö.
Some of the watercolors seem to have been done on site, with anatomical and perspective oddities easy to spot. More finished pieces like “Summer Vacation,” 1886, and “Lapping Waves,” 1887, stand out for their sense of location and almost photographic depiction of dense northern waters.
Overall, his watercolors make for an interesting counterpoint to his more studied formal portraits created in oil.
Another section of the exhibit deals with Zorn’s etchings. He took up etching in 1882 but only began to use the medium to translate his paintings into print while living in Paris. Several of the paintings in the exhibit are replicated as prints. His handling of the etching needle is as forceful as his handling of the brush.
If the exhibition also included examples of Zorn’s sculpture, the study of his employed media would be complete.
A separate but related exhibit explores the work of Zorn’s American associates, and includes a few portraits by John Singer Sargent, Zorn’s contemporary with whom he is often compared.
In every room, the National Academy Museum peppers its wall labels with endearing and enlightening anecdotes from the artist’s journals and letters. They explain the artist’s decisions at the easel, gossip about sitters, and draw connections between the artist’s work and private concerns.
Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter & Anders Zorn’s American Associates
Feb. 27–May 18
Philip Pearlstein: Six Paintings, Six Decades
Feb. 27–May 11
National Academy Museum
1083 Fifth Avenue