Sorolla – Spanish Master of Light, is the spring’s major exhibition at the National Gallery and the first in a series of Spanish themed exhibitions. Not so well known in the UK today (only one of his major works is in a UK public gallery, the National Portrait Gallery), this is the first exhibition of Sorolla’s work in London since 1908 when he was one of the most famous living artists in the world and the most celebrated living Spanish artist. Moving from Valencia to Madrid as a young man, he quickly gained an international reputation and, before Picasso, was the figure that constituted modern Spanish painting.
The exhibition opens with portraits of his family and the garden at his home in Madrid (now the Museo Sorolla, a national museum), both consistent themes throughout his career. You’re immediately struck by the soft pastels and the way he plays with light. His monochromatic Mother, with its purity of white reflecting the pure love between mother and baby, owes much to Whistler, while Coltilde in a Black Dress and Elena with a Yellow Tunic are highly reminiscent of Singer Sargent (they were friends) in the use of the brush and light to show the delicacy and movement in the way the dress hangs, rather than the fine detailing. Throughout Sorolla’s career, and the exhibition, you see his style change constantly depending on the subject matter, and always there’s the detectable influence of past Spanish masters or his fellow popular contemporaries.
Sorolla was acutely attuned to the legacy of great Spanish artists whom he was following, and it was key to how he ensured his popularity and success. He saw himself as continuing the traditions of Greco, Goya and Velazquez, at a time when he noticed the artists of France looking to Spain. Portraiture is where we can see his working in that tradition most clearly. His Portrait of Ralph Clarkson, an American artist he painted in Chicago in 1911, looks almost like a preliminary work, thanks to the energetic broad strokes of the paintbrush. In reality, it was a work he did in 2 hours, a fact that he let known, because he was challenging himself to meet the abilities of the great Velazquez who, when in Rome, was known to have done multiple portraits in just 2 hours. The portrait even features the sitter’s version of Velazquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas in the background.
Sorolla’s Female Nude, a portrait of his wife, was painted after visiting the U.K. to see the other great Velazquez, Rokeby Venus (you can see the original Velazquez in the National Gallery’s collection), and looks to emulate it in his own way. The curve of the hip is the key comparison between the works, while he plays with the light off her back and the sheen of the satin sheets, again displaying his skill at manipulating light.
Astute at building his reputation early on, Sorolla painted large works on social and emotionally charged topics that he sent across Europe to exhibitions where he won prizes. Sad Inheritance and Another Marguerite! are so different in style, one dark and mournful, the other bright, full of light and the way it plays off the water (a theme he would focus on later in his career), but both are moving and helped consolidate his reputation. Sewing the Sail can’t fail but to make you think; the bright light, blooming garden, and the women at work, it’s idyllic but at the same time the women are toiling at sewing heavy canvas together, cutting their hands as they go. It may be a picturesque setting but the work is about survival, providing the means for them to live and eat.
But it was his mastery of light that made Sorolla the foremost Spanish artist and one of the most famous living artists in the world. The exhibition brings together his landscapes, gardens, and beach scenes with their bright palate of white, pastels, silvery violet, and close observation of light. The traditional courtyard gardens of Spain and the way they bring outdoors indoors and vice versa were constant themes of his work. The subtlety of the ripples and the reflection in Reflections in a Fountain (1908) is beautiful with its focus on the water, not on the building it reflects. He’s playing with our vision. Sorolla’s beach scenes are full of pure innocent joy; the haze of the heat radiating off the water puts one in no doubt of his skill with light. They’re also somewhat reminiscent of Henry Tuke, another contemporary, though with less of the undertones that can be read into Tuke’s work.
Like many of the artists of the period, new technologies were profoundly important to Sorrola. Photography was a feature of his life and you can see that in his work, with the snapshot like quality of paintings such as Skipping Rope, La Granja (1907), where his daughter hovers in mid air as she skips. Towards the end of his life he returned to the topic of his family, garden, light and the beach. In The Siesta (1911) four women lying on the grass sink into it like a pillow, pulling into focus as you get closer. The greens are vibrant, the white pure like clouds at a distance, and you can see the way he’s moving the paint around in the dresses.
Sorolla’s reputation grew, so much so that, on a trip to the US in 1909, he sold over 150 paintings and was commissioned by the great and the good, including President Taft who summoned him to the White House to paint his portrait. Unsurprisingly, this made Sorolla wealthy, and every major museum in the US insisted on having a Sorolla. It culminated in him receiving the commission of a lifetime – to decorate the Hispanic Society’s Library, a commission that took him 9 years and that he wouldn’t live to see installed. The paintings in the exhibition are his first step, the ones he did as initial works as he progressed through Spain with his assistants and photographers recording it all. They’re the raw documentary paintings that were then worked up into the final pieces depicting the true Spain, it’s landscapes and its traditions and daily life. It started him thinking about social issues once more, and he began using a dark pallet again, which he left behind in the 1890s with the large social pairings that initially made his name.
Sadly the commission would almost kill him. In 1919, while sitting in his garden, he suffered a stroke and never painted again, dying in 1923. By this time his fame had waned, overtaken by the likes of Picasso, but perhaps also thanks to the fact that much of his work’s popularity was based on him as an individual and the way he presented it. No longer able to be its cheerleader, its easy to conceive how his name would have faded, helped perhaps by the fact that, while his work does have a definite palate and set of themes, the styles he employed often call to mind other contemporary artists of the time. Certainly this exhibition gives one a sense of the man, the way he worked and his importance – he is deservedly being reintroduced to us – but he lacks a more individual style that is instantly recognisable. The layman with some art knowledge would at first think of the name of a more famous contemporary of Sorolla’s, before perhaps considering the artist and realising its Sorolla.(3.5 / 5)
Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light
Until 7th July 2019
Tickets from £14 – available here
Feature Image –
Joaquín Sorolla, Sewing the Sail, 1896
Oil on canvas, 222 × 300 cm
Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro, Venice
2018 © Photo Archive – Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia