01/03/2014 03:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Anders Zorn in San Francisco

One would seldom assert that the greatest of the Impressionists was a Swede. But once having seen the Anders Zorn exhibition currently up at The Palace of The Legion of Honor in San Francisco, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Light hurries from almost every painting in this show, in its full spectrum, from color so gloriously applied in water or oil that the viewer comes away dazzled by it.

But claiming Zorn as simply some sort of Impressionist seriously undervalues the variety and excellence of his work, and he seldom undervalued himself. He once wrote, "I was entitled to become as great as anyone else, and in that branch of art so commanded by me, watercolor painting, I considered myself to have already surpassed all predecessors and contemporaries."

Born in rural Sweden in 1860, the illegitimate son of a brewer and one of his workers, Anders had a stable childhood looked over carefully by his mother and grandmother. His obvious talent as a boy was rewarded by his being accepted at fifteen to the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. A fellow student there later wrote, "In the middle of a new world among a host of young artists with jauntily angled academy caps I perpetually heard the name Zorn mentioned, and it was enveloped in an aura of wonder and admiration."

"In Mourning", 1880.
Used courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Zorn received his first significant attention with a watercolor titled "In Mourning", painted when the artist was 20 years old. The storm of admiration caused by this piece was particularly notable for the fact that the king himself of Sweden, Oscar II, was so enamored of it that he wished to purchase it. The king was too late, however, although Zorn did paint a similar piece for him some time later.

Anders Zorn and Emma Lamm.
Used courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

In 1885, Zorn married Emma Lamm, the daughter of an upper-middle-class Jewish family from Stockholm. Their lifelong partnership was to be one of remarkable affection and high business savvy. Essentially Emma managed Anders's career, which soon began its meteoric rise to the very highest levels of European and American artistic success.

"The Little Brewery", 1890.
Used courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The Zorns traveled ceaselessly, Anders painting (and selling his work for high prices) all the while. Although he began as a watercolorist, he also became an accomplished painter of oils. His subject material came from every level of society. One famous painting is "The Little Brewery" (1890) which shows a number of women employees bottling the liquor. The seeming drudgery of the work is offset by the extraordinary floor of the room, Zorn's painting of it as lively a rendition as you'll ever see of such pedestrian subject matter.

"Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice", 1894.
Used courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

But he was also a portraitist lionized in his own lifetime. He painted American presidents, European and American socialites, industrialists, aristocrats and many others, much to his and Emma's financial benefit. His portrait of the Boston brahmin Isabella Stewart Gardiner is interesting enough in its portrayal of her airy self-esteem. But the dress she is wearing is a marvel of brushwork that, were it not so precise in its conveying of the movement of the cloth, would appear nonchalant, if not actually messy. But this is messiness reminiscent of that of Frans Hals, and you can't do better than that.

"In the Port of Hamburg", 1890.
Used courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

My claim for Anders as an Impressionist master is based mostly on his stellar treatment of water. There are many such scenes in this exhibition. Two of them, utterly different from each other, yet demonstrate his mastery of the brush and of the vagaries of light reflected in bodies of moving water. The palette for "In the Port of Hamburg" is very restrained, so much so that the painting seems almost monochromatic. But it is alive with the strength and subtleties of the water through which the boatman (perhaps a little surprised to see us standing on the dock on such a damp morning) is rowing.

"Summer Vacation", 1886.
Used courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Anders' renowned "Summer Vacation," which shows Emma waiting on a dock for an approaching boat, has few equals in its depiction of the complicated watery pleasures upon which a small craft can possibly float. Visually the water gathers around this beautiful woman in her very luxurious summer dress and bonnet as though offering itself to her. The boat itself is a masterpiece of precise rendering. It and the boatman are painted in such detail as to appear almost as precursors to the American photo-realist paintings of the late 20th century. But it's a lot better than any of that. To look at this painting and to feel its effect on you is a sensuous privilege.

The Palace of The Legion of Honor hosts this fine exhibition through February 2, 2014. It is not to be missed.

Terence Clarke's new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published this spring.