Sorolla - Spanish Master of Light - at the National Gallery

  • Jane Lowe

Strolling Along the Seashore

Strolling Along the Seashore

An exhibition of works by Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida has just opened in The National Gallery. His works were last in seen here in 1909 - when he was one of the most famous living artists in the world.

Sorolla was beguiled by the changing effects of light and his paintings are a visual feast of colours, dappled light, low melancholy hues and dazzling sparkling waters.

Sorolla came a poor family. Orphaned at the age of two, he was brought up by relatives. Fortunately his artistic was recognised at a very early age and he began studying art at the Academy of San Carlos in Valencia at the age of 15. He went on to study in Madrid and Rome. His approach was to paint large, bold paintings and send them to important international galleries in Paris, Venice and America, gaining critical approval for works on social subjects in the early years of his career.

In the first room we meet the man himself, his wife and family, who were immensely important to him in his personal and professional life. His wife, Clotilde, was his lifelong love and favourite model.

Room two deals with Spanish themes. There are seven paintings and two studies displaying moving and provocative issues of social justice with titles such as 'And They Still Say Fish is Expensive!', a painting which pricked the Spanish cultural conscience. Two fishermen are seen tending an injured younger worker after hauling in a catch. The young man lies all but lifeless, reminiscent of Christ taken down from the Cross. The painting was awarded a gold medal at the 1894 National Exhibition of Fine Arts and was immediately bought by the Spanish government.

'Another Marguerite', a Faustian reference, shows a forlorn young woman, arrested and handcuffed, having murdered her child, sitting with subdued and broken body language awaiting her fate.

Sorolla did not judge his subjects, he said, he painted only what he saw. This is emotively captured in 'Sad Inheritance'. Disabled children from the hospital of Saint John of God in Valencia are led into the sea to bathe by a priest. An amputee is in the water, a blind boy is guided by another, an emaciated and weak child is physically helped by the priest. The painting was a sensation and was exhibited in Paris a year later. It went from Paris to Madrid and then on to New York where it hung on a church altar on Fifth Avenue for eighty years before it returned to Spain. Despite the acclaim, Sorolla was quoted as saying: "I suffered terribly when I painted it. I had to continually force myself. I will never paint a subject like that again."

'Kissing the Relic' is set in the Sacristy of a Valencian church close to his home. The priest offers a relic for the faithful to revere. Sorolla has painted an honest image of a local church, in a poor state of repair, with predominantly women waiting in turn. The light falls on the young woman as she kisses the relic. 'Sewing the Sail' relieves and balances some of the sorrow in this room. A painting flooded with sunlight and a family working cheerfully together on a lustrous white sail is a pure joy to behold.

Room Three shows him ringing the changes on the Spanish traditions of Goya and Velasquez into the twentieth century. Of special significance is his inspiration from the Rokeby Venus. His wife is the 'Female Nude' on a bed of pink satin which shimmers against the model's skin with its shades of olive and cream.

Amongst the eight portraits here is one of his three children gazing at their proud father, 'My Children' and by contrast another, 'The Drunkard', featuring men not at their best...

In Room 4 - Sunlight and Sea features eight paintings, light dancing on the sea, light on the human body. Sorolla had acquired a strong reputation in the art world which rewarded him with substantial wealth. He mounted an exhibition in New York City in 1909 which was a phenomenal success, with queues around the block. The show continued for five months. He sold 190 five paintings, and gained 25 commissions to paint portraits of American grandees including a request to paint the incumbent of the White House, Present William Howard Taft.

Sorolla became imbued with the importance of the Elgin Marbles following a visit to the British Museum, the influence of which is reflected in 'Running along the Beach'. An exquisite painting brimming with fluid movement and vivacity. He plays with water so that the waves are almost audible, and the light in such a way that you can feel the air billowing through the girls dresses. In 'Young Fishermen' the silvery fish in his basket glisten with natural acuity. Sorolla regarded 'After the Bath, the Pink Robe' as his finest work. The woman being dressed appears Grecian and monumental in her stature, yet all the while retaining her natural poise.

Room 5 is dedicated to Visions of Spain. The philanthropist Archer Huntingdon asked Sorolla to decorate the library of Hispanic Society in New York. Nine paintings express the cultural riches of various provinces, costumes, ways of life and evolve into a decorative cycle of two hundred and ten square metres of canvas, featuring the Alhambra, Salamanca and Toledo. It became a mini royal progress with many workers accompanying him on route as he travelled through Spain. It took almost ten years and was installed three years after his death in 1926.

Landscapes and gardens fill Room Six. Sorolla's authenticity towards his subjects continuously developed throughout his career. He was a relentless and restless traveller observing seasons and weather with honesty and purpose. 'Reflections in a Fountain' is the artist playing a trick on our eyes. Initially it appears upside down until it is noticed that the painting is almost entirely a reflection! 'The Smugglers' is almost unnerving in its ability to convey height and jeopardy while carrying the contraband away. He added an additional canvas to convey to spatial emptiness among the rocks and sea.

Out in the Light - The final room highlights Sorolla's fascination with his family. Towards the later part of his life, some of his most beautiful work emerges. His relationship with photography is seen in "Snapshot", a painting of his daughter holding an early camera. Another is 'Skipping Rope' with a girl captured mid jump and her shadow delineated below - a virtual early twentieth century photograph captured in oils. One of my favourite paintings is that of his wife and daughter, 'Strolling Along the Beach', which effortlessly captures his ability to define light and movement.

Christopher Riopelle, curator of Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light, said: "His pictures radiate the dazzle of sunlight on water, the heat of a sultry afternoon and the force of a stiff sea breeze".

Dr Gabrielle Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, said: "He painted tough social themes but became famous for his sun drenched beach scenes and luxuriant gardens. No one before or since has painted Mediterranean sunlight like Sorolla."

A blast of Spanish sunshine has blown in to relieve the grey of a London winter from 18 March until 7 July 2019.

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Tags: National Gallery, Sorolla, Jane Lowe

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