The Spanish impressionist artist, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923), is little known outside of Spain. Half a million flocked to his retrospective at the Prado Museum in 2009. Meanwhile his house in Madrid, now the Sorolla Museum, has become a tourist destination and is best visited, I imagine, out of season.
And yet how strange to think that at the turn of the 20th Century, Sorolla, was considered to be one of the greatest living artists – Monet spoke of him as ‘the master of light’.
Born in Valencia, southern Spain, life for Sorolla had not always been so dandy. He lost both parents to cholera, aged two, and was brought up by a maternal aunt. His love of painting was however encouraged in the early years and following his military service, he managed to gain a scholarship to study painting in Rome.
It took him to Paris in 1885 where he was able to expose himself to contemporary painting. In 1889 he married Clotilde Garcia del Castillo, moved to Madrid and had had three children by her by 1895.
We are told at the exhibition that ‘he was a good family man.’ I admit to feeling my enthusiasm wane a little when I heard the guide say this to a group of journalists. I had just entered a room of domestic portraits and feared that the exhibition might be thereafter a tad dull! True, there was a charming oil canvas of his wife, Clotilde, in bed with Sorolla’s third child. Both mother and child were barely visible snuggling in snow-white sheets and covers.
Clotilde is much in evidence at the show, always impeccably dressed and graceful in hats and long, swirling dresses. By all accounts she stayed beautiful throughout her life.
The second room was infinitely more exciting and was devoted to Sorolla’s social realist works. Another Marguerite (1892) shows a woman clad in black, sitting down in a third-class carriage, her head bowed in shame. Behind her, two civil guards look on. A little light slants through a window, lighting a tiny part of her face, her cloth bag and the bare wooden seat in front. Marguerite, was a slang word for prostitutes in Valencia (Sorolla’s home town) or it could be a reference to the Marguerite in Goethe’s play, Faust, where the woman commits infanticide. The spartan interior conveys all the misery of the situation. It’s a good piece and won him his first Gold Medal in Madrid and then in Chicago.
Even more striking is Sad Inheritance (1899). A monk on a beach leads crippled children (polio victims or perhaps children born of syphilitic parents) to the water to bathe. The huge oil canvas fills a wall. The work is heartrending, the boys so painfully thin and vulnerable in their nakedness. Several are blind and their progression towards the sea is laborious. I returned to this canvas several times. By all accounts Sorolla found the scene distressing and after painting these boys never returned to such a painful subject.
Other social realist paintings, Sewing the Sail (1896), are more optimistic in outlook. A family gathers around a rolled-out sail. It is early afternoon, the sun filters through the veranda and gathers in the sail’s voluptuous folds. (See Title picture)
Packing Raisins (1900) is an equally lovely, peaceful composition, this time women workers are pictured labouring in a cool interior. Fierce sunlight slants through a window reminding us of its presence.
A room of dark portraits followed. The old master Velasquez was very much in evidence here, especially in Sorolla’s painting of his children – Mis hijos (1904).
A room entitled Sunlight and Sea took my breath away. Monet was right; Sorolla’s mastery of painting light on water is second to none. But it was not only that which struck me. Sorolla, I believe, is one of the few artists, who really know how to paint children. In Boys on the Beach (1909) prepubescent boys lie face down on the sand naked. It is a marvellous composition of harmonising hues: violet (for the shallow waters), straw yellow for a boy’s hair and sand, pink and white for the boys’ glistening skin. In Afternoon at the Beach in Valencia (1904), boys paddle in the shallows towards a back-lit horizon of late afternoon sun. The shimmering composition is nothing short of stunning.
Sorella painted these beach scenes straight off with no preliminary sketches. It is why the brushwork feels fluid, flowing and natural. They were the highlight of the show.
Between 1911 and 1919, Sorolla was commissioned by the Hispanic Society of America in New York to create a body of mural-like work entitled Vision of Spain.
Room Five in the exhibition contains four large studies of people in traditional costume. Seen separately the canvases have little impact. I only know this because I then searched Sorolla’s Vision of Spain on YouTube and watched a detailed film of what is on show at the Hispanic Society in New York. Only then can you fully appreciate the monumental murals Sorolla produced.
The artist was on the road for 8 years. He exhausted himself carrying out the commission but he was determined to capture a way of life that would soon disappear.
Two world wars and a civil war later, Spain was never quite the same.
Sorolla was long gone, having died in 1923.
His panoramic vision of Spain however lives on now that the National Gallery has taken up his cause.
Sorolla : Spanish Master of Light runs until 7 July 2019. Sainsbury Wing. National Gallery.
The Sorolla Museum, Madrid, might be worth a visit.
To see Sorolla’s Vision of Spain murals: Hispanic Society of America. Upper Manhattan, New York.