Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light @ the National Gallery

This is the first UK exhibition in over a century of the painter who came to be known as ‘Spain’s Impressionist’, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida.

The 58 works on show have been loaned from Spanish and private collections to present the most complete exhibition of his paintings outside Spain so this is a unique opportunity to see, enjoy and judge for yourself. (A third of the works are on loan from the Museo Sorolla, ‘one of Madrid’s most dazzling small museums, which occupies the house and garden Sorolla designed and built for his family’. So next time you’re in Madrid…)

Sewing the Sail (Cosiendo la vela), 1896

Almost immediately you can see why Sorolla is known as ‘the master of light’. Room two contains what is surely the most impressive painting here, Sewing the Sail, which is a miracle of evocation. You can feel the harsh Mediterranean sun, you can hear the distant susurration of the sea and the laughing chatter of the women as they work, you can smell the scents from the profusion of flowers in baskets and jars.

It is also a big painting, an enormous painting, which takes up most of one wall. You are immersed in the visual experience. Of all the paintings here this was the hardest to tear yourself away from.

But the exhibition brings together works in an impressive variety of genres, large and small. Sorolla was prolific, leaving at his death over a thousand paintings and several thousand drawings and sketches. The exhibition displays a selection of works including vivid seascapes and bather scenes, studies of architecture and formal gardens, many of the portraits from which he made a lucrative living, a whole room of social conscience paintings, and some of the images he prepared for a vast mural depicting Spanish regional customs and dress.

The Return from Fishing (La vuelta de la pesca), 1894

Room one – early works and wife

The first room includes an arresting self-portrait of a man determined to make his way in the world. There are portraits of Sorolla’s wife, Clotilde, as well as his daughters María and Elena, and son Joaquín, who became the Museo Sorolla’s first director.

Sorolla married Clotilde, the daughter of his first major patron, in 1888. She remained his favourite model and, in his many portraits, barely appears to age over the decades. The strong family connection resonates with the painting of a rose bush from Sorolla’s house which, legend has it, withered when the artist passed away and wilted away entirely when Clotilde died.

But the room is dominated by this expressive nude of his wife.

Female Nude (1902) by Joaquín Sorolla. Private Collection. Photo Joaquín Cortés

Three things. 1. He is showing off his skill with oil paint. Look at the shimmer and the shadows and the numerous different shades of pink of the presumably silk sheet she is lying on. 2. He was consciously chanelling the Rokeby Venus, a masterpiece by probably the most eminent Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Sorolla set himself up as Velázquez’s modern heir and incarnation and, like Velázquez, cultivated a wide circle of rich aristocratic patrons until he reached the social pinnacle of being commissioned to paint a portrait of the Spanish king..

3. How very, very traditional it is. By 1902 the Impressionists had been at it for 30 years, and we had had a decade or more of post-Impressionism, Gauguin, van Gogh and so on and were teetering on the brink of the Fauves with their mad garish daubs of vibrant colour. Not in Sorolla’s world. One of the features of the early rooms is the number of international exhibitions Sorolla sent his work to, and the number of prizes he won, in Madrid, Paris, all over Europe. This is the height of late-Victorian Salon art. Sorolla represents everything modern painting set out to overthrow.

Room two – social conscience

Sorolla trained in Valencia and studied in Madrid and Rome. He first won an international reputation for major works tackling social subjects. The second room focuses on the 1890s, when Spain witnessed a period of social unrest as well as the final collapse of its overseas empire.

During this period Sorolla launched his career with a series of monumental canvases depicting the realities and hardships of Spanish life. His first great success was Another Marguerite! which depicted a woman arrested for murdering her child and won great acclaim when it was exhibited in Madrid in 1892.

From there, Sorolla set about gaining an international reputation by sending his pictures to exhibitions across Europe. While Sorolla largely moved away from socially engaged subjects after 1900, the pictures had a lasting impact on the next generation of Spanish painter.

And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! (¡Y aún dicen que el pescado es caro!), 1894

Many of them are wonderful but they feel very old. A painting like this reminds me of the British artist Sir Luke Fildes who was painting grittily realistic depictions of working class life in the 1870s.

Room three – portraits

The third room shows how Sorolla positioned himself as the heir to the tradition of Spanish artists such as Velázquez and Goya, whose works he closely studied at the Prado in Madrid.

In his portraits, Sorolla often adopted their distinctive palette of blacks, greys and creams. He also sought to achieve the same psychological penetration and sense of human presence for which both painters were famous.

Lucrecia Arana and Her Son (Lucrecia Arana y su hijo), 1906

I wasn’t convinced. Like all his works I began to realise that they make a better effect the further back you stand. But I still found the three faces in this double portrait unsatisfactory. The boy’s face looks like the black eyed boys you seen in the countless kitsch paintings you can buy in sunny markets and harbours around the Mediterranean. The woman just looks flat and ugly, and the image of the painter at work in the mirror isn’t exactly inspiring.

Many of the portraits are large, portrait-shaped depictions of the grand and rich and naturally invite comparison with one of the most successful portrait painters in Europe at the time, the American John Singer Sargent who based himself in London. Here’s a characteristic Sargent joint portrait from the period.

Lady Adele Meyer and her children (1896) by John Singer Sargent

In my opinion the Sargent is better. It captures the expressions on all three faces with a kind of dainty realism, and the fabric of the woman’s dress, the son’s velvet suit and, above all, of the antique sofa she’s sitting on – all of these seem to me to be caught with a kind of shimmering accuracy which Sorolla can’t match.

Room four – the beach and sunlight

Room Four celebrates Sorolla’s love of sunlight and the sea. Having grown up by the coast in Valencia, Sorolla began after 1900 to create a substantial body of work, painted out of doors, documenting the mixture of leisure and work he witnessed on beaches close to Valencia and further down the coast at Jávea. These scenes proved hugely popular especially in the United States.

Running along the Beach, Valencia (1908) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias. Col. Pedro Masaveu

The audioguide is very thorough and comprehensive and includes several photos showing Sorolla at work on the beach, a) wearing an amazingly thick, heavy, conventional set of clothes (waistcoat, hat) in what must have been sweltering conditions b) with his canvas protected by a windbreak and the easel held down with an elaborate system of ropes and heavy stones.

In my opinion these paintings are wonderfully evocative but tread a fine line just this side of kitsch. On the one hand the use of colours in a painting like Boys on the beach is masterful – the commentary highlighted how he creates shadow out of colours, not using black, but looking at the composition as a whole I was struck by how he captures the many colours of sand, caused by the changing depths of sea water and light refracted through it.

Boys on the Beach (Chicos en la playa), 1909

But some of them topple into kitsch and once I’d though of Jack Vettriano’s immensely popular paintings of people on beaches, I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I found it hard not to see the Athena Posters aspect of many of these beach works.

Mad Dogs by Jack Vettriano

Mad Dogs by Jack Vettriano

Compared to the threatening new style of the Fauves or the Cubism which was just being invented by Picasso and Braques, yes, I can well imagine that American millionaires bought this kind of thing by the yard.

Room five – studies for the mural

In 1911 Sorolla was commissioned by the Hispanic Society of America in New York to create a vast mural-like series of paintings entitled Vision of Spain.

As preparation Sorolla travelled extensively through Spain, documenting the country’s regional dress, occupations, and traditions. Local people, often provided by Sorolla with costumes and props, were depicted in situ in works which were painted between 1911 and 1919.

The exhibition includes four large-scale preparatory studies for Vision of Spain demonstrating the intensity with which the artist engaged in Spanish folk tradition. Sorolla also painted the landscapes in these regions which he then incorporated in the Hispanic Society paintings.

Bride from Lagartera (1912) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Three things:

1. The audioguide explains that, because the subjects were not professional models, they had to be painted quickly. The audioguide emphasises a) the terrific skill this required b) the way the paint was applied very quickly, often direct from the tube, in squiggles across the surface, and it’s true, if you get up close the pictures become almost abstract and, the guide suggests, exercises in pure painterliness.

2. They’re not very good, though, are they? They are not a patch on the huge realist works from the start of the exhibition, from the 1890s and, even allowing for the fact that they were rushed and are only preparatory works, still, the overall effect is negative.

3. Shame there weren’t more big colour photos of the finished mural. This does look very impressive but was only available as tiny black and white photos on the screen of the ipod-sized audioguide. Shame.

Room six – landscape and gardens

The sixth room of the exhibition is devoted to Sorolla’s views of landscapes and gardens. From a panoramic vista of the barren mountains of the Sierra Nevada glowing in evening light to the medieval towers of Burgos Cathedral under snow, Sorolla had a gift for finding the viewpoint to best communicate the atmosphere and character of a setting.

On several visits to the south, he recorded the country’s heritage in views of the gardens of the Alcázar in Seville and the Alhambra in Granada. None of these paintings pulled my daisy as much as the big realist works in room two or some of the sunlight beach scenes.

Reflections in a Fountain (Reflejos de una fuente), 1908

Room seven – family

The final room highlights Sorolla’s fascination with depicting his family in large canvases painted out of doors such as Strolling along the Seashore (1909) and The Siesta (1911).

These works are twenty years on from Another Marguerite! and And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! and Sewing the Sail, and in The Siesta in particular you can see him really exploring the possibilities of oil painting, but in a landscape saturated with light. The Impressionists often painted fog or snow, for the German Expressionists it was always stormy night-time, but for Sorolla – even when he is at his most experimental, verging on abstraction – it is always bright and dazzlingly sunny.

The Siesta (1911) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

The Siesta (1911) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Conclusion

In June 1920 Sorolla suffered a stroke in the middle of painting a portrait which paralysed him down one side, effectively ending his career, and died on the 10th August 1923.

The downstairs exhibition space at the National Gallery includes a comfy little cinema where they were showing a fifteen-minute documentary about Sorolla, complete with extensive explanations from the show’s curator, Christopher Riopelle.

From this we learn that he was given a state funeral, as befitted the official portraitist of the king and the royal family, and one of the last public painters working in the great European tradition, before Modernism swept all that way forever.

Having walked around it a couple of times and listened to the audioguide, I couldn’t help making continual comparisons to the social realist paintings of a Luke Fildes or the much finer portraits of Singer Sargent and, on the couple of occasions Sorolla does statuesque women in bathing suits, I was immediately reminded of the much more precise and lustrous paintings of the late-Victorian Olympians like Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

But… some of the large scale paintings, notably Sewing the Sail, are really stunning, eye-opening exercise in the overwhelming power of painting, and many of the details of the beach and sunlight paintings are wonderful – there’s a way he has of capturing the fading sunlight as it’s thrown across rocks which reminds you of all the Mediterranean holidays you’ve ever had.

And his use of colour, his juxtaposition of shades and hues to create subtle visual effects, is often dazzling. The more you look, the more absorbed you become. The curator claims that ‘No one before or since has painted Mediterranean sunlight like Sorolla’ and this may well be true.

Young Fisherman, Valencia (1904) by Joaquín Sorolla. Private Collection © Photo Laura Cohen

Videos

Review by Visiting London Guide

Curator’s introduction by Christopher Riopelle.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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