It has been over a century since the works of the Spanish painter Sorolla (1863-1923) were last exhibited in the UK. Known as the “Master of Light” for his luminous paintings, the National Gallery in London has provided the opportunity to see a collection of his works outside of Spain, a chance that may not come again for another hundred years. Until 17th July, The National Gallery has possession of Sorolla’s vivid seascapes and beach scenes, portraits, landscapes and Spanish genre scenes, totalling 58 canvases, many of which won awards.
In the first room of the exhibition, the National Gallery describes Sorolla as a family man, however, little is mentioned of his unfortunate upbringing prior to his marriage in 1888. Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida was born on 27th February 1863 in Valencia, Spain to a tradesman, for whom he was named, and his wife, Concepción Bastida. The following year, Sorolla’s sister Concha was born, however, by August 1865, the siblings were orphaned after their parents died from cholera. Fortunately, their maternal aunt and her locksmith husband were able to care for both of the children.
Little else is recorded about Sorolla’s early years except that he began studying art from the age of nine. At 18, Sorolla travelled to Madrid where he studied the masters at the Museo del Prado and at 22, after completing military service, he received a grant to study painting in Rome for four years. These experiences introduced Sorolla to the traditional forms of painting, however, a temporary stay in Paris opened his eyes to the potential of modern painting.
In 1888, Sorolla returned to Valencia to marry Clotilde García del Castillo (1865-1929), who he had met ten years previously when working in her father’s art studio. In 1890, the couple moved to the Spanish capital, Madrid, and by 1895 they had three children: María (1890-1956), Joaquín (1892-1948) and Elena (1895-1975). The National Gallery displays portraits Sorolla made of his wife and children, however, they do not show the exceptional talent of the Spanish painter. These portraits introduce the artist and his family in the same way that a photo album would today.
A canvas titled Mother gives a better indication of Sorolla’s potential. The painting reveals Clotilde in bed looking tenderly at her youngest child, Elena, who is enveloped in a bright, white, cottony swathe of light. Although both the bedspread and walls are white, Sorolla has softened the brightness with yellow and green tones to create gentle shadows. This is one of the early examples of Sorolla’s excellent ability to control light in his artwork.
Although Sorolla is considered to be a Spanish impressionist artist, he preferred to work on large canvases, unlike the French impressionists who worked to a much more smaller scale. After his marriage, Sorolla began concentrating on producing large scale works on a social realism theme. Whilst Spanish landscape paintings were greatly admired, Sorolla wanted to bring attention to the hardships of working-class people who lived in the country.
Sorolla’s social realism paintings ended up in exhibitions displayed in numerous cities, including Madrid, Paris, Venice, Munich, Berlin, and Chicago. His first success occurred in 1892 when he was awarded a gold medal at the National Exhibition in Madrid for his painting Another Marguerite. This award was shortly followed by first prize at the Chicago International Exhibition for the same painting.
Inspired by a scene Sorolla witnessed on a train, Another Marguerite depicts a broken woman who has been arrested for allegedly suffocating her baby son. Immediately after the event, Sorolla asked passengers to recreate the scene so that he could begin sketching out his idea. The diagonal view of the carriage emphasises its starkness and the downhearted appearance of the woman and two guards is contrasted with the warm glow of light from the window. All these elements build up a melancholy image that, even without context, stirs emotions in the viewers. The title stems from a character in Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).
Fishing was a popular career for working-class men in Valencia and, whilst it was often rewarding, it also had its dangers. And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! features two fishermen attending their young companion who has been injured by a fish hook. The unstable space within the rocking boat is not the best conditions for performing potential life-saving procedures, however, this is the only space accessible to the fishermen. The title mocks the Spanish population who complain about the price of fish not realising the dangers the fishermen face on a daily basis.
This painting reflects the style of art taught in art schools at the time, the portrayal of light resembling that of 17th-century naturalist painting. Sorolla’s final social realism painting, however, is much more indicative of his future mature work. Sad Inheritance (1899) shows a group of crippled boys bathing in the sea in Valencia under the observation of a monk. These children are crippled as a result of their parents’ syphilis, hence the title Sad Inheritance.
Despite taking the Paris World Exhibition by storm in 1900 and receiving the medal of honour at the National Exhibition in Madrid the following year, Sorolla never returned to the social realism genre. “I suffered terribly when I painted it. I had to continuously force myself. I will never paint a subject like that again.”
Sorolla went on to win another gold medal, this time at the Paris Salon in 1895 for his much-admired painting The Return from Fishing (1894). This genre painting shows a group of fishermen returning to shore after fishing on the coast of Valencia. Two oxen are towing the boat through the last of the shallow waters to dry ground. Although Sorolla produced other paintings of fishermen, this was the first to demonstrate Sorolla’s personal style. The way the sunlight plays on the water is excellently portrayed as are the shadows created by the vessel, men and animals. As Sorolla said himself, this was the first canvas on which he had managed to give visual form to his painterly ideal.
Sewing the Sail (1896), which won awards in Munich and Vienna, was not as greatly received by some of the critics. Not so keen on the cramped conditions of the sewing party, critic José Ramón Mélida (1856-1933) wrote, “It is highly audacious for him that mass of formless canvas that seems to be the protagonist of the composition.” Whilst Mélida may not have approved of the overall composition, Sorolla was revealing the conditions in which the seamstresses were forced to work. Although the women seem cheerful, emphasised by the colourful climbing vine, their working conditions were not necessarily appropriate for the large canvas sail. Nonetheless, the mass of material gave Sorolla the opportunity to experiment with light and shadow over the folded sail.
These two paintings and many of his other works are known as costumbrismo, which is a term that sums up the “literary and pictorial interpretation of local everyday life, mannerisms, and customs, primarily in the Hispanic scene,” particularly in the 19th century. The majority of Sorolla’s works fall into this category and usually focus on a scene out in the open air. Packing Raisins (1901), however, is set in a gloomier location, which Sorolla witnessed during a sojourn in Jávea in the summer of 1901. Until more recent years, foods like raisins were individually packed by hand – a gruelling, tedious task. Sorolla captured the dreariness of the occupation using thick impasto, which was rather unusual for the artist but, perhaps, was inspired by other impressionist painters.
“I dislike painting portraits, unless it is in the open air.”
– Sorolla, 1909
Whilst Sorolla produced a few portraits, it was not his favoured genre of painting. Nonetheless, he applied himself to the genre and was rewarded with a considerable income and firm reputation, particularly in Spain and the United States of America. The portraits displayed by the National Gallery, reveal that Sorolla painted traditional “mundane”, elegant portraits in a similar style to that of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828), both of whom Sorolla admired greatly. In fact, the Spanish journalist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (1867-1928) wrote an essay in which he referred to Sorolla as the “grandson of Velázquez, son of Goya.”
Velázquez’s influence on Sorolla can be seen in Portrait of Ralph Clarkson (1911) in which a segment of Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) can be seen in the background. Ralph Elmer Clarkson (1861-1942) was an American painter who also admired Velázquez. Las Meninas being both artists’ favourite painting was an appropriate addition to the commissioned portrait.
More references to both Velázquez and Goya can be seen in Sorolla’s painting My Children (1904) from which the figures: María, Joaquín and Elena; emerge from a dark background. It is evident that Sorolla asked his children to pose for the painting, which has resulted in a rather disconcertingly intense stare on their faces – thus not quite replicating Velázquez’s technique.
Other artists’ styles creep into Sorolla’s work every now and then, for instance, the aforementioned impressionists. Sorolla’s Portrait of Amalia Romea, lady of Laiglesia (1897), however, was influenced by the work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). Sorolla painted Amalia Romea in a soft colour palette typical of Alma-Tadema. The side-on, relaxed position of the sitter is also reminiscent of the Dutch-British artist.
Although Sorolla may not have enjoyed portraiture as much as his other types of painting, his reputation caught the eye of William Howard Taft (1857-1930), the 27th President of the United States of America. Invited to stay at the White House with the Spanish-speaking Taft family, Sorolla painted the proud president in a similar fashion to the dark, elegant portraits of Velázquez and Goya. Whilst this particular painting is not displayed in the National Gallery’s exhibition – it is on permanent display at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio – it features in the Exhibition Film, which all visitors are invited to view.
Without a doubt, Sorolla’s artistic abilities are at their highest in his paintings of beach scenes. It is the way he created realistic light as well as the movement and dampness of the water that earned him the title “Master of Light”. Living in Valencia and other areas of Spain gave Sorolla plenty of opportunity to capture images of children playing on the sand and amongst the waves. At the time, it was usual for boys to play on the beach naked, whereas girls wore thin dresses or wraps. Although in today’s society scenes such as these would cause outrage, Sorolla’s paintings express the innocence, freedom and joy of the children at play.
Sorolla perfectly captures the colours and movements of the water, of which The White Boat, Jávea (1905) is a perfect example. The sunlight reflecting on the water is extremely realistic, as is the shadow of the boat and the bodies of the two boys swimming in the sea. Boys on the Beach (1909) is another painting that makes Sorolla worthy of his “Master of Light” title. Although the water is shallow, the sand is clearly covered with a layer of liquid and a sheen of water reflects off of the boys’ bare bodies.
Some of these beach scenes also fall into the costumbrismo genre, for example, Young Fisherman, Valencia (1904). Here, a young boy is carrying a basket of fish whilst other children his age splash around in the sea. Despite his age, he is already in the world of work, perhaps coming from a poor family who relies on the income of their children as well as their own to get by.
Running Along the Beach, Valencia (1908), on the other hand, reveals the carefree nature of children who were not forced into work. This is one of Sorolla’s most impressive works; not only has he painted the light on the sea, sand, clothes and bodies, but he has also captured the fast movement of the children. For paintings of this nature, it is not possible to ask someone to pose, the moment is over in a blink of the eye. Sorolla created many quick sketches and studies until he was satisfied with the composition, only then did he take to the larger canvas.
Throughout his career, Sorolla became increasingly known throughout the United States. His success resulted in a commission from Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955), the founder of the Hispanic Society of New York, in 1911 to paint a decorative frieze for a new hall at the institution. Huntington initially wanted a mural featuring the milestones in Spanish history, however, Sorolla convinced him to focus on “renderings of contemporary life in Spain”. The frieze was to be over 70 metres long and just under four metres in height but Sorolla was not comfortable working at that size and proposed to break it down into a series of canvases of various dimensions.
This commission, known as the Visions of Spain, occupied the majority of Sorolla’s time from 1911 until 1919. During these years, Sorolla was constantly travelling around Spain in order to “truthfully capture, clearly and without symbolism or literature, the psychology of each region.” Sorolla wanted to portray a truthful representation of his country as well as reveal “the picturesque aspects of each region.”
Sorolla focused heavily on the Spanish traditions, often hiring peasants to pose for him in regional dress and various costumes. Whilst these carefully positioned portraits were arguably not the “truth” of the country, they did combine Spanish practices, beliefs and culture.
Unfortunately, this commission required an enormous effort from the ageing artist and it began to affect his health. As a result, Sorolla’s other projects began to dwindle and his reputation began to drop. By the time the Visions of Spain was installed in the hall in 1926, three years after his death, his prominence in the United States had waned and the opening of the hall did not cause the anticipated sensation.
“We painters can never reproduce sunlight as it really is. I can only approach the truth of it.”
The exhibition of Sorolla’s work reveals that not only was he skilled at representing natural light in his paintings, but he also loved working in outdoor settings. His better artworks are those that include bodies of water, particularly the sea. A handful of landscape paintings of gardens and famous Spanish buildings fail to live up to the reputation Sorolla set himself with his beach paintings. One of the final rooms of the exhibition displayed a few of the landscapes and gardens, however, the only two that particularly stood out were Reflections in a Fountain (1908) and The Smugglers (1919).
Reflections in a Fountain was painted in the gardens of the Alcázar of Seville. Rather than painting the facade of the building, Sorolla chose to paint the building’s reflection in the water of the fountain. By doing this, Sorolla was able to focus on the light and ripples on the water, which, as evidenced in his beach scenes, he is an expert at.
The Smugglers, whilst considered in the exhibition to be a landscape, is more of a genre or beach painting. Set above the cliffs looking down at the water, several smugglers are caught on canvas climbing up the rock face. Once again, Sorolla was able to play with the bright sunlight on the distant waves and the bright patches and shadows on the steep rocks.
The exhibition also reveals a little about Sorolla as a person. It is evident that he is a family man, faithful to his wife and protective of his children. When his eldest María contracted tuberculosis, Sorolla missed out on two exhibitions whilst he nursed her back to health.
Not including portraits, Sorolla’s children appear in many of his paintings. In Skipping Rope, La Granja (1907), for instance, Elena is skipping around a pond with some younger children. His daughters also appear walking along the beach, sitting on a bench, or even painting their own paintings in his other works.
Sorolla’s career came to an end in 1920 when he suffered a stroke midway through a painting. With half his body paralysed, he was unable to work and his health deteriorated rapidly over the next three years. He finally died on 10th August 1923 when he was staying in the mountains near Madrid. Although his popularity in the States had diminished, he was still loved and respected in his own country and received a state funeral in his native Valencia.
Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light reintroduces a unique artist to a new generation. Although he has been called an impressionist painter, he does not really fit into any particular category of art, therefore, he can be appreciated for his own work with no need to compare with other artists. The exhibition remains open until 7th July 2019 and costs £16, however, members of the gallery can visit for free.