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An etching of Paul Verlaine by Anders Zorn

This time last year, before anyone dreamed of lockdowns, the AHRC-funded project, Decadence and Translation, led by myself and Stefano Evangelista, was drawing to a close. As part of our final event at the University of Glasgow, we were lucky enough to secure a visit to the storage facilities of the Hunterian Museum and Gallery at Kelvin Hall. I’ve written about this previously on the project website (here), where you can see some footage of our visit too. I thought I would take the opportunity of the anniversary of our visit to write a little more about the particular image that caught the eye of Graham Henderson on our visit, as you can see in the short clip below.

The portrait of Paul Verlaine so admired by Graham was made by the Swedish Artist, Anders Zorn in January 1895, at the height of his powers as an engraver and maker of etchings. Zorn had a chequered personal life: born in 1860 the illegitimate son of a farmer’s daughter and a German brewer, Zorn studied Art in Stockholm, but his career only really took off as he travelled internationally. First, he moved to London in 1882, where he became known as a painter of society portraits in watercolour and gouache. Crucially, at that time he began to study etching under a fellow-Swede, Axel Herman Haig. In 1888 Zorn moved to Paris, but he also seems to have been travelling throughout Europe at this time. As his fame and reputation as an artist spread, he began spending time in America too. And he would eventually create separate portraits of three American presidents (Cleveland, Roosevelt and Taft). He truly was a cosmopolitan artist and man of the world.

Anders Zorn, ‘Paul Verlaine (2nd plate)’ (GLAHA:2839), ©The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

In style, Zorn is known for a crystalline realism of sharp, clear outlines and forms. But his etchings were strongly influenced in their use of light and dark by Rembrandt. And this can be seen in the portrait of Verlaine, which shows a deep area of shadow falling across one side of the French poet. Casually posed, leaning on a table with some sort of embroidered cloth, Verlaine’s body language suggests he is at ease, but his gaze towards the viewer is direct. He holds the eye, with an inscrutable expression that might express a challenge or convey a bemused detachment. In an alternative version of this image, the diagonal fall of the shadow is less pronounced and dramatic, but the object on the table is more apparent, suggesting an empty cup or glass. The scene of this image, then, may be one of the cafés which Verlaine was known to frequent and where he met with young acolytes and, indeed, literary tourists, such as George Moore (as described on this blog previously).

Anders Zorn self portrait

Zorn’s image seems to have been drawn from a live model and most likely dates from the period when he was living in Paris. But the circulation of the image, like Zorn’s own travels, was international. This portrait of Verlaine was created for a German magazine Pan, co-founded by the poet Richard Dehmel in Berlin during 1895, with financial backing from a wealthy industrialist, Eberhard von Bodenhausen. Zorn’s illustration and the article it accompanied in the fifth issue of Pan on 1 July 1896 confirm Andreas Kramer’s broad description of the tensions between ‘an international outlook’ and the ‘German cultural nationalism’ that characterised the magazine as a whole. The portrait of Verlaine precedes Magnus von Wedderkop’s article, ‘Paul Verlaine und die lyric der Decadence in Frankreich’ which seeks to explain recent developments in French avant garde poetry to a German audience. Although the article also mentions work by Stéphane Mallarmé, Tristan Corbière and J.K. Huysmans, Zorn’s etching confers a further visual prominence upon Verlaine that Wedderkop’s article underscores when he compares the French poet to Goethe in importance and position. At the same time, Wedderkop is guarded about the example or precedent Verlaine and Decadence might set for German writers, since they are associated with ‘überraffinierte Sensualismus und die seltsamen Verirrungen der Phantasie’ (over-refined sensualism and strange aberrations of the imagination).

Although Wedderkop’s article speaks to a present moment in literary history, his account of Verlaine is thoroughly posthumous and this is underlined in a footnote on the last page, which suggests that Zorn completed his etching only shortly before the poet’s death in January 1896. It belongs to Verlaine’s legacy, which may be how a copy of this portrait ended up in Glasgow. Other copies are preserved Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago, amongst other places.

2020_12_08_Hunterian_stores.jpgHunterian Gallery Stores

The etching in the holdings of the Hunterian Gallery was part of two gifts made to the museum by James Alexander McCallum (1862-1948) during 1939 and 1948. McCallum studied Law at the University of Glasgow, graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in 1887, but records suggest that his connection with the university was sustained: he examined law degrees there from 1895 onwards, became a lecturer in Comparative Jurisprudence in 1904 and a Doctorate in Law was conferred upon him in 1931. But he was also an avid private collector of manuscripts and prints. He left over 2,000 volumes on fine art and travel to the library on his death, as well as an extensive collection of manuscript materials. His gifts to the Hunterian comprised around 4000 items, largely prints and etchings. They constitute a considerable proportion of the museum’s holdings in fine prints.

McCallum’s general artistic tastes seem to have been fairly conservative: he mostly collected British artists from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His donations included works by Henry Fuseli, John Ruskin and Joseph Turner. But there are hints of more cosmopolitan tastes – for he also donated several etchings by the maverick American artist, James McNeill Whistler. Zorn’s portrait of Verlaine would seem to confirm these international interests too.

In fact, I shouldn’t take credit for showing off this beautiful artwork. Until last summer, I was unaware of its existence. But I was lucky enough to secure funding from the University for two students, Jarkko Tanninen and Candice Walker, to work with me on a project to create a digital edition of some manuscripts in Glasgow University Library by Mallarmé (I’ve written about this on our project website here). I asked Candice and Jarkko to look through catalogues at the Hunterian for visual materials to accompany our edition and this image was amongst their findings. A very kind Collections Manager at the Museum took us to examine the results of their findings. And as soon as I saw Zorn’s portrait, I knew Graham would love it. Hence our visit to the Hunterian storage facility last December and hence this post, which allows me to share the image and some of its provenance with a wider audience. I hope that visitors to Glasgow will be able to appreciate this image and other fine works at the Hunterian in the near future.


Matthew Creasy
Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Glasgow

Posted on:Tuesday 8th December, 2020