Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860-1920) painted Midsummer Dance (1897) at a moment when, throughout Europe, many felt it important to assert and reify one’s geographical identify—local, regional, national. While in the preindustrial era—let’s say before 1750—mainly aristocrats, merchants, Jews, and Roma were mobile, the subsequent triple threat of agricultural reform, industrialization, and a population explosion initiated a demographic fluidity that continues to this day. How many of us live in the town, much less the dwelling, where we were born?
While for us this is the not-so-new normal, for citizens of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it constituted anxiety-inducing independence from the security and comfort of family and village. Most of us living in colonized territories (Australia, Central/North/South America, inter alia) trace our ancestry to individuals who left their homelands (rarely by choice), compelled to venture to unfamiliar lands whose language they rarely spoke and to figure out how to survive and to flourish far from the support networks that had nurtured them.
Zorn was such an individual, although he was born in Sweden and it remained his home. His father was a German brewmaster who had left his homeland to manage a Stockholm brewery and his mother, a peasant girl from the central Swedish province of Dalarna sent from her impoverished home to work in the big city. Dalarna women were prized industrial workers due to their reputation for physical strength and reliability. Like many teenage girls sent off to earn a living in the city, she was impregnated by the man for whom she worked. She placed her only, illegitimate, child in the care of her parents, who raised him in the village of Mora, on the shores of scenic Lake Siljan.
When Zorn left home at fifteen to study at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm, he was a country bumpkin who spoke a dialect not understood in the capital. But he was clever and watched and learned. He befriended fellow student Carl Larsson, a working-class boy, who from an early age helped support his mother and siblings because his alcoholic father contributed little. Larsson made money from newspaper and journal illustrations while Zorn made pastel portraits on commission. This brought him into contact with a bourgeois clientele, a situation that improved both his manners and his mastery of Swedish. In fact, this is how he met his wife, Emma Lamm, daughter of a rich Jewish merchant; her father hired Zorn to draw Emma’s portrait. Like many who come from impoverished circumstances, Zorn eagerly joined this bourgeois world of sociability and security and learn its ways. So commercially successful was he that as an adult, his etchings commanded higher prices than Rembrandt’s, and by the end of his career, three American presidents had sat for him for their portraits.
Nonetheless, Zorn remained sentimentally attached to his grandparents and his home village and was delighted that Emma wanted to establish first a summer, then a permanent, residence in Mora. In fact, while he was globe-trotting (he helped organize the Swedish painting section of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and made three extended trips to the U.S.), she remained in Mora and oversaw their myriad local philanthropic activities that fostered the preservation of local traditions (fiddle-playing and dancing) and handicraft (textile- and birchbark- weaving, smithing, painting, and carving), in addition to establishing an orphanage.
When, following the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, at which critics castigated Swedish painters for imitating French trends rather than staying true to native subjects and styles for which qualities they had praised Norwegian artists, politically progressive Swedish painters heeded the criticism, and returned to Sweden to paint quintessential Swedish subjects. Those lucky enough to have been born in the provinces returned (at least for sketching expeditions) to their childhood homes.
Zorn was lucky to have roots in the province considered most embedded in peasant tradition, partly because it’s the mythic birthplace of the Swedish nation. The first Swedish king, Gustav Vasa, declared Sweden’s independence from Denmark in 1521 and led a successful, wintertime peasant rebellion, now commemorated by a 90-kilometer cross-country ski race, Vasaloppet, held annually in February. Dalarna secured its position as the epicenter of Swedish folk culture in the late eighteenth century when again its peasantry rebelled, this time against the Swedish government, which burned down villages elsewhere in order to force peasants out of their villages and onto consolidated tracts of land that could be more efficiently farmed. The little red houses dotting the Swedish countryside are residues of a violent, state-mandated agricultural efficiency project. Dalarna’s inhabitants stood firm against the mandate, which is why one still finds there picturesque villages of log homes.
Midsummer Dance depicts what is now a common Midsummer evening scenario, one that the Zorns were partly responsible for reviving: couple dancing to folk music. What instruments and music and what kind of dances depends on the region. In Dalarna, it’s fiddle music and either hambo (originating in central Sweden) or waltz. All Scandinavians would identify this as a night scene, although foreigners, unfamiliar with such light nights, might not. They might only interpret this as a happy peasant scene, fulfilling their vision of contented peasants living simple lives in harmony with one another and their surroundings.
Swedes would see more. It must be late because children are nowhere to be seen. Earlier in the day, they may have watched the village men pull the decorated ‘maypole’ into place with ropes in carefully coordinated teamwork, a hallmark of Dalarna peasant identity. They might even be able to identify the particular village depicted through the costume specifics of the women. And (if they weren’t too bourgeois to know folk dances) they could identify the dance as a hambo, thanks to the arm positions of the couples and airborne feet of the couple at left. Judging from the lightness of the sky and the reflection in the window of the modern red house (which contrasts with the foregrounded—both literally and metaphorically—traditional log cabin in front of which the musicians stand), the scene unfolds around midnight.
Because he hailed from the north (Stockholmers still consider pretty much anything north of Uppsala, 50 kilometers away, ‘the North’), Zorn enjoyed a natural advantage over his more southern-originating colleagues. In Dalarna, subjects abounded that differed dramatically in appearance from ones found on the continent, and Zorn painted them for an enthusiastic Stockholm audience, suddenly proud of their collective peasant origins. That Zorn painted with a loose, impressionistic brushstroke linked him simultaneously to avant garde international trends, making such works easily appreciated by an international public delusionally and often enviously believing in a joyous, worry-free life of those who work the land. Indeed, most Swedes with roots in that geography, possess ancestral homes—sometimes still without running water or electricity—to which they feel psycho-emotionally connected and to which they return at Midsummer.
The vision of Midsummer represented here by Zorn quickly became the model for the revival of midsummer traditions throughout Sweden. A similar scenario unfolds each year at Skansen, Stockholm’s open-air museum. Founded a few years before Zorn painted Midsummer Dance, Skansen was the world’s first open-air museum and perhaps the only one situated in the nation’s capital and intended as the nation in miniature, with representative buildings from all social classes, eras, and regions. Nowadays, even ‘new’ Swedes with origins in Chile, Iraq, and Bosnia embrace the qualities embodied in Zorn’s painting: communal celebrations of the singular elements of Swedish tradition: the food, the music, the dances, and the magic of darkness-free nights, when everything is visible, even in the densest corners of the forest.