A survey show at the National Gallery in London illuminates the achievement of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, the last great master of the classical Spanish tradition of painting.
The Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida had a very fortunate life, both professionally and personally, but in terms of posterity he had the misfortune to have been doing his best work just as avant-garde modernism was about to change the art world forever. Often grouped with his contemporaries John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn, Sorolla was a master of bravura paint handling, influenced by Impressionism but basically anchored in the older European tradition of realist depiction, and particularly the Spanish tradition from Velázquez and Ribera through to Goya. In his time, Sorolla became an international sensation, hailed as “The World’s Greatest Living Painter” by the London gallery where he had a one-man show in 1908, and in 1909 and 1911 he had blockbuster shows in New York, a city for which he felt a great affinity and where he had important patrons.
But only two years later, the Armory Show came to town, bringing with it a whole new approach to painting, and to visual art in general, that would cause work such as Sorolla’s to be derided and, eventually, ignored. After his death in 1923 at the age of 60, Sorolla’s work went out of fashion, and it was not until the 1990s that he began to be rediscovered, due to changed attitudes that allowed for a more objective stance on the hot-button issues of the modernist debates. Now, with the distance of a century and more, viewers no longer need to make up their minds as to whether Sorolla’s works are “retrograde” or not; they can simply enjoy them for what they are. Exhibitions in Spain, Germany, France, and the U.S. have raised awareness of Sorolla, amid a growing appreciation of the art of the Belle Epoque as well as of Spanish art.
Now through July 7, the National Gallery in London is presenting “Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light,” the first exhibition of the artist’s work in the U.K. in over a century. Curated in partnership with the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (to which the show will travel after closing in London) and the Museo Sorolla (housed in the artist’s former home and garden in Madrid), the exhibition brings together over 60 major works in all the genres that Sorolla practiced—social realism, portraits, nudes, beach scenes, gardens, and historical works. Christopher Riopelle, the National Gallery’s Neil Westreich Curator of Post-1800 Paintings, consulted with Sorolla’s great-granddaughter Blanca Pons-Sorolla and with Consuelo Luca de Tena, director of the Museo Sorolla, in organizing the show, and also collaborated closely with Brendan Rooney, Head Curator and Curator of Irish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland. Loans of artworks came from numerous museums in Spain, Italy, France, Cuba, and the U.S., as well as from private collections.
Sorolla was born in 1863 in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain, a region whose beaches, fishing ports, folk traditions, and special sunlight would always be central to his art. His parents died in a cholera epidemic when he was two years old, and he and his sister were raised by an aunt and uncle. At 13 he started taking classes in drawing with the sculptor Cayetano Capuz at the Escuela de Artesanos in Valencia. Making rapid progress, he had his own painting studio by the age of 16, on the top floor of the house of a photographer named Antonio García Peris, who supported the budding artist financially and whose daughter Clotilde would become Sorolla’s beloved wife and favorite model.
In 1881, Sorolla visited Madrid, the capital city, for the first time, and in the halls of the Prado received his first exposure to the work of Diego Velázquez. The Spanish masters of the 17th century, especially Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera, were key inspirations and reference points for 19th-century Spanish painters such as Mariano Fortuny y Marsal and Ignacio Pinazo Camarlench, and Sorolla deeply immersed himself in this tradition, which prized careful observation and virtuoso technical skills. Sorolla loved Velázquez’ Las Meninas (1656) and frequently alluded to it in his paintings; his 1906 portrait of the American artist Ralph Elmer Clarkson incorporates a copy of it, and his habit of admitting the viewer to a scene through a door or portal derives from Las Meninas’ distinctive, optically challenging vantage point. His great Female Nude (1902) is a conscious updating of Velázquez’ Rokeby Venus (1647–51), and his portrait of fellow painter Aureliano de Beruete is Velázquez-like in its use of black, livened by small strokes of white and red in the subject’s face that impart a spark of psychological realism.
Sorolla’s friend and fellow Valencian, the novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, called him “grandson of Velázquez, son of Goya,” and while the influence of the former was most lasting, in his early years Sorolla was especially indebted to Goya for his close focus on social problems and difficult subject matter. Today he is best known for his sun-splashed visions of bourgeois grace and harmony with nature, but Sorolla’s paintings from the 1890s are much grittier. Another Marguerite!, which won Sorolla a first-class medal at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1892, his first major achievement in the art world, shows a young woman in a train car, flanked by two police officers. She is dressed in black, with her head bowed down dejectedly; a closer look reveals that her wrists are in handcuffs. Sorolla got the idea for this painting when he was riding on a train and saw a handcuffed woman who, he was told, had killed her out-of-wedlock baby. Sorolla simplified the composition by eliminating everyone else from the train car except the three figures, heightening its emotional power with this dramatic unity. The painting’s title alludes to Marguerite from Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera Faust (Gretchen in Goethe’s original play), who killed her child and was damned and eventually saved.
Another important work from Sorolla’s early period shows influence from Goya in its social observation as well as its satirical title. And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! (1894) shows three fishermen belowdecks, the two older ones tending to the prostrate younger one, who evidently received a serious wound while plying his trade. The palette of this canvas is mainly shades of brown and black, and the overall effect is very 17th-century while maintaining a strong sense of contemporary social relevance. Sad Inheritance! (1899) depicts a group of disabled children from an institution being taken for an outing to the beach by a black-clad priest. There is poignant contrast between the healthful sun and sea and the distorted, weakened bodies of the children, and yet this is clearly a rare joyful moment for them. Sorolla based it on a scene he had actually witnessed and painted it en plein air, on the very same beach. “I suffered horribly when I painted it,” he recalled. “I had to force myself all the time. I shall never paint such a subject again.”
Indeed, the turn of the century marked a turning point in Sorolla’s work, in both his choice of subjects and in his technique. Sad Inheritance! is actually a sort of fulcrum in that it marks the last time Sorolla painted with a “social realist” agenda, while the background of the picture—the beach, the water, and the beautifully rendered sunlight—move to the foreground in much of the rest of the artist’s oeuvre. Running Along the Beach, Valencia (1908) gives us children on the beach again, but now they are archetypally healthy: a naked boy chases two girls in sun dresses, one pale pink and one white. The sun glistens against skin, and the bright sun draws crisp shadows in the folds of the cotton dresses. The whole composition is dynamic, exuberantly full of life.
This dynamism is reflected in Sorolla’s mode of working—almost always plein air and always quickly. He insisted that speed was of the essence, that he “could not paint at all” if he had to paint slowly, since “every effect is so transient, it must be rapidly painted.” To capture not just the motion of people but the constantly shifting light, he moved toward a looser, brushier technique that sometimes flirts with Impressionism without ever completely going there, espousing an intermediate style that was modern without being revolutionary. Fellow adherents of this style, known as International Modernism or juste milieu, included Sargent and Zorn, whom Sorolla called “the one who had reached the goal of what I understood and understand oil painting to be.” As for plein air, it became virtually a religion for Sorolla, who set up impromptu painting tents of sheets of cloth tied to stilts and anchored to the ground by ropes so that he could work on the beach without being disturbed by the wind. Nonetheless, conservators still find grains of sand embedded in his canvases.
Sorolla’s interest in the effects of sun and dappled shadow on skin and cloth can be seen again and again in his post-1900 paintings. In After the Bath, The Pink Robe (1916), a large-scale work that the artist considered “one of the best I have ever produced,” the women’s loose beach garments take on a sensual life of their own, as bars of sunlight coming through the bamboo slats of the cabana play over them. One of Sorolla’s best-known works, Strolling Along the Seashore (1909), is a symphony of sun, sand, sea, and glorious white cloth. It is actually a double portrait of his wife and their daughter María, and the two women, with their white dresses, straw hats and white parasol, incarnate something of the modern bourgeois cleanliness, grace, and rationality that the new 20th century promised for Spain.
An integral part of this gracious lifestyle was the domestic garden, which Sorolla not only cultivated in his own residence but repeatedly painted. His painterly technique finds particularly fertile soil in a series of paintings of the gardens of the Alhambra and the Generalife, former residences of the medieval Islamic rulers of Spain. Sorolla toured historic sites in Spain to make studies for Vision of Spain, a massive mural commission he received from his American patron Archer Milton Huntington, founder of the Hispanic Society of American in New York and organizer of Sorolla’s hugely successful 1909 and 1911 shows. The panoramic cycle of paintings was to run around the ceilings of the HSA’s building like a frieze, illustrating not only the history of Spain and its New World Empire (the last of which was lost as a result of the war with the U.S. in 1898) but also its contemporary folklife. Sorolla shared with Huntington a strong affection for Spanish traditions that were dwindling away amid the pan-European modernity that he himself was part of. The National Gallery exhibition includes sketches and studies for Vision of Spain, which tend to have greater vitality than the somewhat stagy finished products, which were not fully installed until 1926, three years after Sorolla’s death.
While Sorolla was in many ways traditional, he was no conservative, and there is nothing in his art to indicate that he was making a statement against the avant-garde, or any new trends in art. He simply reveled in the power of paint to convey the beauty of the world, and, just as much, in the experience of using it. In a letter to his wife, he wrote, “Painting, when you feel it, is the greatest thing in the world.” When asked by a journalist if he had ever had any ambition other than to be a painter, he replied, “No, not me … no, a painter! Nothing but a painter! If you had been able to follow my life, step by step, at my side all the way, you would be persuaded that I never wanted to be, nor will I ever want to be anything but a painter.”
By John Dorfman