The (Other) 20th-Century Spanish Virtuoso
By LIZ HAGER
. . . 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 convinced that I have never wanted to be, nor do I want to be, nor will I ever want to be anything but a painter. . .
—Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, 1913 interview
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Segovian Figures, 1912, oil on canvas, approximately 78 x 80″ (Museo Sorolla).
Though widely popular in Europe and America at the time of his death in 1923, Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla (y Bastida) has been largely ignored since then by art critics and historians outside his native country. A follower of Manet, Sorolla’s reputation hasn’t sustained a similar level of acclaim, which is curious, for to this artist’s eye he was in every way as accomplished a painter as Manet. Many other painters of note, including Sargent and Thiebaud, have been influenced by Sorolla’s lyrical brushwork, broad but harmonious color palette, and virtuosic depictions of light. Indeed, the Sorolla techniques visible in many a contemporary realist painter.
Edouard Manet, The Fifer, 1866, oil on canvas, 63 x 38 5/8 ” (Musée d’Orsay).
Sorolla’s only crime may have been that, unlike his equally-prolific compatriot, Pablo Picasso, he resolutely chose not to live in Paris. France’s stranglehold on Western connoisseurship lasted more or less from the Baroque period until the mid-20th century, when the Abstract Expressionists managed to make New York the working center of the world. During this period a fistful of non-French artists have found their way to the eternal spotlight. Perhaps this was due to talent or sheer persistence, but often too the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time (and purchased by the right collector). What else would explain Sorolla’s present absence from the group of recognized world Masters?
Despite a recognized Spanish artistic tradition, which included the significant accomplishments of Velázquez, El Greco (an immigrant from Crete), and Goya, as well as his own considerable talent, Sorolla likely abdicated some measure of posthumous fame, by choosing to remain in Spain while the turn-of-the-century spotlight shined on Paris.
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, The Horse’s Bath, 1909, oil on canvas, approximately (Museo del Prado).
Still, reputations can be remade. (One is reminded of Caravaggio.) And Sorolla’s lesser status in the annals of art history doesn’t diminish the grandeur of his achievement. Like the Impressionists, Sorolla was a dedicated plein-air painter. His signature style—thick and aggressive application of paint contrasted with areas of exposed canvas and virtuosic rendering of light and atmospheric effects—was closely linked to the Impressionists.
Diego Velázquez, Pope Innocent X, 1650, oil on canvas. (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome).
Like his contemporaries, the Post-Impressionists, Sorolla aimed for a modern type of painting, although he found his way to that through the naturalist tradition, rather than increasingly-abstract means. It was this proclivity for naturalism that led first led Sorolla to Velázquez. But one suspects that it was also Valázquez’s exquisite treatment of light that captured the young artist’s attention.
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Sewing the Sail, 1904, oil on canvas, approximately 36.5 x 51 ” (Colección Masaveu).
Though linked to these movements, Sorolla remained staunchly aloof from them. Still one cannot deny that the artist pushed the depiction of light and color to vertiginous heights.
Born in Valencia in 1863, Sorolla showed early artistic talent. In a prophetic tale, he is reputed to have doodled endlessly during school, rather than learn his lessons. Formally trained from the age of 14, at 18 Sorolla left Valencia for Madrid, where he relentlessly copied Old Masters in the Prado. He is recorded as having made 16 copies alone of Velázquez paintings. He went on to study in Rome. Despite the early formal training, Sorolla didn’t hit his artistic stride until the 1890s. One sees the artist’s progression plainly in the chronology of the paintings in the Museo Sorolla collection.
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, View of Avila, 1912, oil on canvas, 58 x 84 cm (Museo Sorolla).
Although best known for his luscious, luminous seaside scenes, Sorolla was a versatile painter, who rendered portraits of the high-bred and low-brow, everyday street scenes, and loads of landscapes. His works from 1904 onward display a prodigious command of a wide color palette. His portraits of Spanish folk are at once a solemn and joyful chronicle of a uniquely Spanish tradition that look almost anthropological today. To make his folk depictions authentic, Sorolla often delved deeply into local customs and insisted upon personal accessories.
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, La Siesta, 1911, oil on canvas, (Museo Sorolla).
John Singer Sargent too admired the work of Velázquez. Sargent and Sorolla most likely met in 1900 at the Universal Exposition in Paris, where both were awarded medals for their work. Sorolla inscribed a small sketch for his painting Triste Herencia (Sad Inheritance), one of the most popular at the Exposition, to Sargent. Sargent returned the favor by sending a small watercolor. In the work of both, one sees the similar insistence on hearty brushwork and close attention to capturing effects of light on their subjects.
John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloir, 1911, oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 30″ (National Gallery of Art, Washington).
In the first decades of the 20th century, Sorolla exhibits attracted huge crowds, both on the continent and in the United States. A special exhibition of his paintings at the Gallerie Georges Petit in Paris in 1906 led to his appointment as Officer of the Legion of Honour. Wide introduction to the American public came in 1909 with a massively successful exhibit staged at the Hispanic Society in New York. The show, featuring more than 350 (!) of his works, reputedly drew 160,000 visitors over the course of its opening month.
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, The Cathedral of Burgos in the Snow, 1910, oil on canvas, approximately 41 x 32.5″ (Museo Sorolla).
In fact, many consider Sorolla’s crowning work to be panoramic series of paintings in the Hispanic Society of America (New York), completed in 1920 just before a paralytic stroke ended his ability to paint. The work depicts the 49 Provinces of Spain, through their specific scenery, costumes and customs.
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Rainbow, El Pardo, 1907, oil on canvas, approximately 24.5 x 36″ (Museo Sorolla).
This summer, Madrid’s Prado will present the first comprehensive solo exhibit of Sorolla’s work since 1963. Perhaps the reputation of the other 20th-century Spanish virtuoso will at last be secured.
Sargent/Sorolla Exhibition (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2006)
Miles Mathis on Sargent/Sorolla
Edmund Peel—The Painter Sorolla
Mary Elizabeth Boone—Vistas de España