Zwaan, Cornelius Christian (1882-1964)

Zwaan, Cornelius Christian (1882-1964)

Dutch-born artist Cornelius Christian Zwaan became a portrait painter in much demand in the USA during the early 20th century. He also executed a number of idyllic, sentimental genre scenes depicting traditional folk life.

Zwaan’s artistic education began at the Royal Academy of Art in his hometown of Amsterdam. He was able to secure a place there from the generous patronage of Queen Wilhelmina. Following the completion of his studies, Zwaan worked for a time in the nearby town of Laren.

Perhaps it was the town’s rural setting that inspired an interest in depicting scenes of traditional folk life. Indeed, this was a genre which had become very popular in the 19th century and remained so into the 20th. Buyers were keen for images of a fading simplistic, romanticised way of life, far from the churning changes of the modern world. Zwaan participated in such a trend, often depicting families with young children, their cheeks rosy with innocence.

Cottages are set amongst vibrant, verdant countryside, creeping in through the windows. Glorious sunlight paints rooms in yoke-like yellow, and flagstone floors are alight with a terracotta tinge.

Although the details are unclear, Zwaan seemingly decided a move to the USA would bring a better flow of steady business. Along with his wife Beatrice, who worked as a photographer, Zwaan pulled up his roots and replanted them in the States. Here, he was able to cultivate a successful trade as a portrait painter. He would capture the likenesses of wealthy businessmen or sultry socialites.

There is a sleekness to his brush in how he captures the sitters’ likeness and personality. Limbs are articulated with a graceful fluidity. His palette adds vibrancy to their skin tone whilst retaining a down-to-earth quality. There is something grand and yet casual about his portraits as if Zwaan has rendered both the significance of their having a portrait painted whilst also retaining authenticity of character.

Despite his success in the USA, Zwaan retained his Dutch roots. Indeed, the greatest honour for the artist was the chance to paint Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. The portrait was such a success, Queen Juliana had Zwaan knighted and bestowed with the Order of Orange Nassau in recognition of his work.

Zwaan managed a successful career in the United States whilst also keeping close ties to his homeland. His works remain interesting examples of the staying power of portraiture in the early 20th century when it was under threat from photography. A number of his works are retained in museums in both the US and the Netherlands, including the Indianapolis Museum of Art.


Born in Amsterdam, Netherlands.


Lived and worked in Laren, Netherlands.


Emigrated to the USA.


Became a citizen of the USA.


Died in Detroit, Michigan, USA.

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