Picasso and Paper

wztrvaeza9tmrywclkjw

Self-portrait, 1918

“To this day, I remember him lost in a mountain of papers.”
– Jaume Sabartés

Pablo Picasso was one of the most influential artists in the 20th century and is remembered for founding the Cubist movement. His paintings are recognised by his radical style and characteristics of Surrealism, although he was never part of the Surrealist movement. Yet, there was so much more to Picasso’s talents that have been overshadowed by his revolutionary artistic accomplishments. This year (2020), the Royal Academy of Arts brings Picasso’s fascination with paper to the foreground, displaying more than 300 works that span his 80-year career, many of which are hard to believe are his.

“Some day there will undoubtedly be a science… which will seek to learn more about man in general through the study of creative man. I often think about such a science, and I want to leave to posterity a documentation that will be as complete as possible.”
– Picasso

It appears Picasso kept everything – drawings, prints, designs, photographs, manuscripts, poems, doodles on newspapers, ideas scribbled on scrap paper – and the Royal Academy have sorted through the items to create a chronological exhibition entitled Picasso and Paper. Unlike the exhibition Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy at Tate Modern in 2018, which focused on a single year, the Royal Academy attempts to look at every aspect of Picasso’s career. By studying the diversity and range of Picasso’s use of paper, both in preparatory works and final outcomes, the exhibition reveals the mobility of his intelligence and provides a deeper understanding of his work.

86376683_10218546781212206_6306784764049227776_n

Dove and Dog, Picasso age 8

Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, named after a series of saints and relatives, was born in Málaga, Spain in 1881 to Don José Ruiz y Blasco (1836-1913) and María Picasso y López. He began showing an artistic talent from a young age and his mother claimed his first word was “piz”, short of lápiz, the Spanish word for pencil. Picasso’s father was a painter, specialising in still life, landscape and pigeons, and gave Picasso his first art lessons in 1888. In 1891, Picasso attended his father’s ornamental drawing classes at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in A Coruña. By the age of ten, Picasso had surpassed his father in artistic talent.

The family moved to Barcelona in 1895 following the death of Picasso’s younger sister Conchita from Diptheria. Despite the sad time, Picasso enrolled at the School of Fine Arts, being admitted to the advanced class at the young age of 13. At 16, his father decided to send him to Madrid’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, although he stopped attending after a few days, preferring to study the paintings in the Prado.

Academically, Picasso was a realist painter, however, from 1897 he began to show elements of Symbolism, adding unnatural colours to his work. In 1900, Picasso made his first trip to Paris where he shared an apartment with the French Poet Max Jacob (1876-1944), however, severe poverty forced him to return to Madrid the following year.

In 1901, Picasso was heavily impacted by the suicide of his friend Carlos Casamegas (1880-1901). Having met in 1899, they quickly became friends and travelled across Spain together. Casamegas went to Paris with Picasso, however, there were signs his mental health was suffering. It is believed Casamegas shot himself after a rejected marriage proposal.

Casamegas’ death led to the development of what is now known as Picasso’s “Blue Period”. As well as his friend’s death, the works produced during this period (1901-04) express his feelings of loneliness and life in poverty. The majority of his paintings at this time were rendered in shades of blue and blue-green. Subjects included sad-looking women with children, prostitutes, beggars and his recently deceased friend.

The Royal Academy displays pen and ink studies Picasso made when planning his painting La Vie. The sketches reveal he originally intended to include himself in the painting as though it were set in his studio. By studying these papers, we learn how Picasso approached a painting by experimenting with ideas before applying paint to canvas. By the time he started painting, the figure of himself had become a likeness of his friend Casagemas.

frugalmeal

The Frugal Meal, 1904

During his Blue Period, Picasso was introduced to the technique of etching by the Catalan artist Ricard Canals (1876-1931). This printmaking technique, also known as drypoint, involves scratching very fine lines onto a copper plate. The plate is then inked and laid face-down on a piece of paper, which is then squeezed through a printing press. By this process, the image is transferred onto the paper.

Picasso’s debut etching is entitled The Frugal Meal, which depicts an emaciated blind man and sighted woman sitting at a table. A very sparse meal is laid out in front of them, which is not enough for one person let alone two. Blindness was another key theme during Picasso’s Blue Period.

When Picasso made his first engraving, he was also living in poverty and could not afford to purchase a copper plate. Instead, he scraped down a previously used plate, which resulted in a few unintended lines in the background of his etching.

In 1904, Picasso returned to France, leaving his Blue Period behind in Barcelona. Inspired by French performers at the Cirque Madrano, clowns, dancers, acrobats and harlequins, Picasso began a new period: his Rose Period (1904-06). Tinged with the colour pink, these paintings expressed his melancholy feelings towards the lives of these performers. Nonetheless, the pinks and oranges have a much lighter tone than his Blue Period.

As well as painting, Picasso continued to produce etchings and drypoints, culminating in his first significant series, the Saltimbanques Suite. These included portraits of performers and scenes at the circus.

Some critics believe Picasso’s change from Blue to Rose was sparked by his relationship with Fernande Olivier (1881-1966) who was a French artist and model that Picasso met in Paris. They became lovers and their relationship lasted seven years. In 1906, Picasso and Olivier spent the summer at Gósol in the Spanish Pyrenees, which inspired another painting theme. Sticking to the red and orange tones, Picasso began painting the landscape and locals in a stylised way, moving further away from the realist art of his youth. With Olivier as a willing model, he also became more interested in representing the female nude.

The Royal Academy devotes one room of the exhibition to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which he painted in 1907, although they only have a digital reproduction of the final artwork. Around the room are examples of studies and preparatory sketches Picasso produced when planning what would become one of the most revolutionary paintings in the history of art. His sketchbooks suggest the composition was originally going to include a sailor and a medical student in a brothel, however, the final result only featured women.

At first, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon may appear to be a continuation of his Rose Period, however, it was actually the beginning of his African Art and Primitivism Period (1907-09). Picasso had become fascinated with Iberian sculptures that were produced between the Bronze Age and the Roman Conquest. Iberian art, mostly sculptures, was largely inspired by the Greeks, the Phoenicians and Oriental countries and tended to use blocks of shapes rather than carefully sculpted realistic dimensions. Picasso liked this idea of simplification and experimented with it in his sketchbooks.

In 1907, Picasso visited the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadéro where he saw and was impressed by African artefacts. This encouraged him to continue to experiment and simplify his drawings into abstract, geometric shapes. Picasso began to reject the teaching of Western art, particularly in terms of perspective, squeezing scenes together into compressed spaces.

Picasso’s sketchbooks are an invaluable resource, providing insight into his transformation from realism to abstract. As time went on, his drawings became flatter, rigid and geometric like the ancient Iberian sculptures. The African influence is obvious in the mask-like faces some of his characters portray.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was not publically displayed until 1916, partly because of the shock and revulsion his new style received. Picasso’s rival Henri Matisse (1869-1954) initially assumed this “savage” style was a hoax and he was not the only artist to make snide comments. Fortunately, the French painter Georges Braque (1882-1963) saw potential in Picasso’s new direction.

From 1909, Braque began working closely with Picasso, exploring the directions Picasso’s latest style could go. Together they developed what we now know as Cubism, however, this is a broad term for the style that quickly spread across Paris and then Europe. Art critic Louis Vauxcelles (1870-1934) coined the word “cubism”, however, Picasso’s work can be separated into Analytic Cubism and Synthetic Cubism.

Analytic Cubism (1909-12) is the style of painting Picasso and Braque developed, which involved using monochrome or neutral colours. Rather than painting what they could see, they mentally took apart the objects and analysed their shapes and forms, then put them backed together like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle.

This style was not restricted to painting, for instance, Head of a Woman, which Picasso sculpted and cast in bronze. The woman is Fernande Olivier, however, rather than producing a likeness, Picasso analysed the form and shape of her head and facial features. In several sketches, Picasso explored the structure of Olivier’s appearance from various angles, fusing different sections and viewpoints together. The final result was based on several sketches merged together.

Synthetic Cubism (1912-19) was a further development of the genre made primarily by Picasso. Rather than painting, it involved the use of paper, often in fragments, which were pasted together to make a collage. By using pins, glue, newspaper, wrapping paper and wallpaper, Picasso began making papier collé (pasted paper) paintings by adding elements of collage to his paintings or drawings. This then developed into entire compositions made from paper.

Picasso’s favourite items to depict in this style appear to have been pipes, glasses, guitars or violins. These objects could easily be flattened and recognised through geometric shapes. Occasionally, Picasso would make three-dimensional models of the instruments, however, they retained their Cubist style and would not have functioned properly had they been real.

The outbreak of World War I temporarily separated Picasso and Braque, the latter who was called to join the French army, and Picasso’s artwork became more sombre. This was partly due to the devestation of war but mostly due to the death of his new lover. Olivier and Picasso had split and he had become infatuated with Eva Gouel (real name Marcelle Humbert). Many of his Cubist works expressed his love for Eva and he was devestated when she died from an illness in 1915 at the age of 30.

With his friends gone to war, Picasso sought out other social circles and became involved with Serge Diaghilev’s (1872-1929) Ballets Russes. Picasso was commissioned to design the costumes and set for Jean Cocteau’s (1889-1963) Parade, with music by Erik Satie (1866-1925). The musical score lasted fifteen minutes and involved the sounds of horns and engines to represent the chaos of modern life.

Cubism was still at the forefront of Picasso’s art, therefore, it is no surprise that his designs for Parade were influenced by this. Complicated costumes merged the elements Satie was trying to evoke through his music, including, car horns, high-rise buildings and typewriters.

Whilst working on Parade, Picasso married Olga Khokhlova (1891-1955) who was a ballerina in Diaghilev’s troupe. They spent their honeymoon near the Bay of Biscay in the Summer of 1918 then returned to Paris. Through his wife, Picasso attended many high society events and experienced the life of the rich, although he was still rather poor – his rent was paid by his art dealer Paul Rosenburg (1881-1959).

picasso-1920-igor-stravinsky

Igor Stravinksy, 1920

Picasso and Olga had a son, Paulo, however, their relationship was impacted by their conflicting ways of life. Olga preferred social propriety, whereas Picasso wished to retain his Bohemian lifestyle. Nonetheless, Picasso continued to work with Diaghilev’s troupe and collaborated with Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) on his 1920 ballet Pulcinella.

Due to marital conflicts, Picasso began a secret affair with 17-year old Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-1977). Picasso wished to divorce his wife but this would result in Olga receiving half his wealth, therefore, the couple formally separated instead. As a result, Picasso was legally married until his wife’s death in 1955 and could not marry his new lover. Marie-Thérèse lived in hope of eventual marriage, which never happened, and gave birth to Picasso’ daughter Maya out of wedlock.

After the First World War, many artists became a part of the “return to order” movement that swept across Europe. The upheaval of the war caused people to reflect on what life used to be like and for artists, such as Picasso, this involved attempting to recreate the art and culture of classical antiquity. Thus, Neoclassicism was born.

This period, which lasted from 1919 until 1924, is largely omitted from Picasso’s portfolio and visitors to the Royal Academy’s exhibition may be surprised by the abrupt change in style. Picasso made his first trip to Italy in 1917 where he came across many examples of classicism. By using a similar range of media that classical painters used, such as red chalk, and pastels, Picasso produced exaggerated figures, emphasising the round facial features rather than cutting them up as he would have done in a cubist portrait.

Picasso’s Neoclassical period was short-lived and he soon returned to his former Cubist style. He continued to collage together different materials, including paper, string, cloth and nails, to make the shape of an object, such as a guitar. By 1925, however, he had caught the eye of another group of artists, the Surrealists. Whilst Picasso never officially joined the movement, his work inspired the leader André Breton (1896-1966) who declared him “one of us”. Picasso was invited to participate in the first Surrealist group exhibition, although he chose to display examples of his Cubist work.

A handful of sketchbooks suggest Picasso was influenced by Surrealist art, although he did not find the manifesto of the group appealing. His series of constructed guitars is similar to works or “found objects” by Surrealist artists and his style of line drawing underwent a transformation. Picasso began experimenting with irrational scale and morphing segments of an image together.

His relationship with Marie-Thérèse inspired many of Picasso’s works, particularly of an erotic nature. She appears in over 40 of his supposedly sexualised drawings of a woman’s head, which led to a sculpture of a woman with an irrationally large nose. A lithograph of Marie-Thérèse’s visage proves the nose is not based on any semblance of truth.

In the early 1930s, Picasso developed an alter ego that he used in his art to express issues in his personal life. This was the half-man, half-bull, lustful minotaur from Greek mythology. Picasso identified with its strength and masculinity and it also alluded back to his childhood and love of Spanish bull-fighting.

The minotaur was known for its ability to overpower women and Picasso attempted to demonstrate this in his drawings, mostly of a sexual nature. The women in his artworks often resembled the women in his life at the time: Olga, Marie-Thérèse and a new lover, Dora Maar (1907-97). The violence of his subject matter may be reflective of the psychological tensions between Picasso and these women.

As well as issues in his personal life, Picasso was affected by the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War. Up until now, Picasso was against mixing politics and art, however, the 1936 uprising of the fascist General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) changed this. Picasso produced a series of etchings showing Franco brutally murdering people.

At this time, Picasso was asked to paint a mural for the Republic’s pavilion at the Paris World Fair of 1937. Initially, Picasso explored the idea of portraying an artist’s studio, however, after the German bombing of the Basque city of Guernica on 26th April 1937, which resulted in hundreds of innocent deaths, Picasso changed his line of thinking. Guernica has become Picasso’s most famous work and the evolution of the painting can be seen in his sketchbooks and through photographs taken by his lover Dora Maar. Whilst considered to be one of the most powerful war paintings, not everyone understands the meaning of the different elements. Picasso, however, refused to explain, saying, “It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.”

After the World Fair, Guernica was displayed as the centrepiece of an exhibition that toured Scandinavia and England, alongside paintings by Matisse and Braque. When Franco won the Spanish Civil War, the painting was sent to the United States to help raise funds for Spanish refugees. It was displayed in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, where a major retrospective of Picasso’s principal works was also held.

Meanwhile, Picasso continued to depict the grief and anxiety caused by the war, particularly in his Weeping Woman series, which was modelled on Dora Maar. A large collage of cut-out wallpaper, which was eventually produced as a tapestry twenty years later, is believed to show the same women Picasso depicted in Guernica. Femmes à leur toilette contains three figures that some have identified as Olga (left), Dora (centre) and Marie-Thérèse (right).

When the Second World War broke out, Picasso decided to remain in Paris during the German occupation. His paintings did not conform to Nazi ideals, therefore, his home was often searched by the Gestapo. On one occasion, an officer found a photograph of Guernica and asked if Picasso had done it. The artist replied, “No, you did.”

Sketchbooks from the period show Picasso continued with his paintings but, most interestingly, designed sculptures. Bronze casting was outlawed by the Germans, however, Picasso managed to use bronze smuggled in by the French Resistance. Sketches for Man with a Sheep show the man getting progressively older until Picasso settled on a thin, balding man. The sculpture is believed to be a response to the war, particularly the lives of innocent civilians caught up in the lives of soldiers and weapons. The sketches contribute as much emotion as the final sculpture. In an interview with Picasso, his drawing technique and medium were likened to coagulated blood.

As another means of expressing his emotions, Picasso began composing poetry. Between the beginning of the Second World War and 1959, Picasso wrote at least 300 poems. The Royal Academy displays pages containing his poetry, illustrations and scribbles, the latter which are as expressive as his words.

pablo2bpicasso2b-2bportrait2bof2bfrancoise

Portrait of Françoise, 1946

In 1944, after the liberation of Paris, Picasso grew tired of Dora and sought the affection of a young art student, Françoise Gilot (b.1921). Although she was forty years younger than Picasso, they began to live together and had two children, Claude (b.1947) and Paloma (b.1949). Françoise later described her relationship with Picasso as abusive and claimed he had affairs with other women at the same time, for example, Geneviève Laporte (1926-2012), who featured in many portraits. Françoise eventually left Picasso, taking their children with her.

During his turbulent relationship with Françoise and other lovers, Picasso returned to admiring the artists he had looked up to as a young painter. He was particularly fascinated with Édouard Manet’s (1832-83) Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the grass), which had sparked controversy and was ill-received when first displayed in 1836. “When I see Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, I think there will be trouble later on,” noted Picasso. The painting reveals a nude woman picnicking with two fully dressed men.

Picasso recorded his response to the painting in his sketchbooks, making over 150 drawings of the subject in his own style. Twenty-seven of these became paintings and others inspired watercolours, linocuts and three-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Picasso also reproduced works by other artists, Eugène Delacroix’s (1798-1863) Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (Women of Algiers in Their Apartment).

In his 70s, Picasso made and painted ceramics at the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris on the French Riviera where he met his next lover, Jacqueline Roque (1927-86). He began seeing Jacqueline before his relationship with Françoise had ended, who was plotting to marry Picasso to secure the rights of her children as legitimate heirs of the artist. As a means of revenge, Picasso married Jacqueline in secret in 1961.

By this time, Picasso was an international celebrity and lived in a Gothic mansion with Jacqueline and could afford luxury villas in the south of France. Nonetheless, he continued working and accepting commissions, the majority of which were sculptures. The Royal Academy, however, continues to focus on his works involving paper, such as sketches, prints and cuts outs.

Picasso had the ability to manipulate paper in new and unusual ways, for example, a free-standing paper sculpture of Head of a Woman. The woman, presumably Jacqueline, was initially drawn in pencil, then cut and folded so that she could stand upright. The image looks similar to versions Picasso painted on canvas in the past.

Towards the end of the exhibition, the Royal Academy shows a clip from the documentary Le Mystère Picasso by Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-77), which captures on film the processes Picasso went through when producing a work of art. What may start as one subject (for instance, a chicken) may become a different subject entirely (for instance, a woman’s face).

Picasso’s final works were a complex mix of styles, however, due to his age, many dismissed them as slapdash works of an artist past his prime. By then, he was in his 90s and very aware of his own mortality. This is evidenced in one of his final self-portraits in which he depicted himself as a skull with terrified eyes and a mouth tied shut (either that or he had not aged well!).

Regardless of how they were received, Picasso continued producing artworks until his death on 8th April 1973. He was entertaining friends with his wife when he suffered pulmonary oedema and heart failure. Whilst Picasso’s past lovers had reported violence and abuse, his relationship with Jacqueline lasted until his final breath. Devastated by his death, Jacqueline shot herself nine years later, passing away at the age of 59. Marie-Thérèse, who Picasso had continued to support financially, killed herself four years after Picasso’s death.

Picasso and Paper reveals the side of Picasso that has been hidden from the world for so long. Everyone knows of his abstract portraits and his cubist paintings, however, his early years, collages and sketchbooks are rarely exhibited. By working chronologically through his life, the Royal Academy has focused more on Picasso’s process rather than his outcomes. Some people may argue that his work appears random, haphazard and thrown-together, however, this exhibition proves a lot more thought went into his work than it might appear.

The exhibition Picasso and Paper is open until 13th April 2020. Tickets cost between £18 and £22 but Friends of the RA can visit for free. Visitors are advised to allow two hours for their visit.

Spanish Master of Light

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.

sorolla-self-portrait-painting

Self Portrait, 1904

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.

1024px-joaquc3adn_sorolla_y_bastida_-_mother_-_google_art_project

Mother, 1895-1900

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.

Portrait of Mr. Taft, President of the United States, 1909

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.”
– Sorolla

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.