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Sorolla, master of light, brightens the day

Painting by Joaquín Sorolla, My Wife and Daughters in the Garden
Joaquín Sorolla, My Wife and Daughters in the Garden, 1910 Oil on canvas, Colección Masaveu © Fundación María Cristina Masaveu Peterson, 2013. Photo: Marcos Morilla

Known as the ‘master of light’ for his scintillating canvases, the Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida now has his moment in the English sun, so to speak. The National Gallery’s retrospective - the first UK exhibition of this artist in over a century - offers plenty of the vivid seascapes and sun drenched garden views for which he is most famous in an exhibition that’s bound to delight.

The name of Joaquín Sorolla probably won’t spring to the lips of most people in the UK. Asked for a top five list of Spanish artists most would come up with El Greco, Velasquez, Goya, Picasso... faltering perhaps at that point. Yet, Sorolla was the leading Spanish painter of his day and for his 1908 London exhibition was billed as the ‘World’s Greatest Living Painter’.

Self portrait by Joaquín Sorolla
Joaquín Sorolla, Joaquín Sorolla García, seated, 1917 Oil on canvas, Museo Sorolla, Madrid © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

The National Gallery does us a big favour in bringing this gifted painter back to our notice. For as exhibition curator Christopher Riopelle says, “I think of him as the missing link between the great Spanish masters, between the death of Goya and the birth of Picasso.”

Sorolla was born in Valencia in 1863 and died in 1923. He was talented and ambitious and rapidly established himself as an award winning artist in Madrid and internationally. The Museo Sorolla in Madrid, his home and garden that he created in his final years and now a Spanish national museum, is says Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, “one of the most charming and beautiful artists’ houses anywhere.”

Painting by Joaquín Sorolla, The Return from Fishing
Joaquín Sorolla, The Return from Fishing, 1894 Oil on canvas, Paris, musée d'Orsay © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

More than 60 works spanning his career are on show in London, including portraits, landscapes and genre scenes of Spanish life. It’s an interesting as well as beautiful show and I soon learn that while his sunny depictions of the life, landscapes and traditions of Spain and portraits were the pictures that sealed his fame, he first gained an international reputation for his works that tackled social subjects.

Among those to be seen are The Return from Fishing (1894, Paris, musée d'Orsay; this, his first monumental painting, won a gold medal at the 1894 Paris Salon and was immediately bought by the French government), Sewing the Sail (1896), and Sad Inheritance! (1899). Enormous and expressive, they are staggering works: light playing over billowing sails and brilliant seas as oxen drag home a laden boat; light playing over crumpled white cloth on the floor as men and women check and mend a sail; and more sombrely, a late afternoon scene as boys from a local children’s hospital limp down to the sea to bathe. This last is less sensual than many of his paintings; perhaps out of sympathy for the poor children with shaved heads, in a scene witnessed while on a Valencia beach.

Joaquín Sorolla, Packing Raisins, 1900 Oil on canvas, Private Collection Photo: Pablo Linés

A smaller painting caught my eye. Called Packing Raisins (Encajonando pasas) and painted in 1900, it’s a scene of young women in southeast Spain crowded together in a shed as they apply themselves to the task of turning Muscatel grapes into raisins. What makes it stand out is the stripe of brilliant light that streams in diagonally across the picture.

Sorolla had a vast output, and he varied his style and subjects - all were centred on Spain. There are some appealing landscapes here - for example, of Burgos cathedral under the snow, or the monastery at Toledo, and the gardens at the Alcázar of Seville - my favourite, the inverted view of the arches in Reflections in a Fountain that is almost all reflection. There are also some superb studies of people in regional dress, capturing some of the country’s dress and traditions before it changed.

Painted between 1911 and 1919, these were studies for Sorolla’s commission for the Hispanic Society of America in New York to create a vast mural-like series of paintings for the library entitled Vision of Spain. The local people, who were often provided by Sorolla with costumes and props, were depicted in situ. Many may never have seen a painter or photographer before - Sorolla was followed on this tour by an army of photographers who documented him at work - and so are depicted staring directly, solemnly out at the camera.

Painting by Joaquín Sorolla, Strolling along the Seashore
Joaquín Sorolla, Strolling along the Seashore, 1909 Oil on canvas, Fundación Museo Sorolla, Madrid © Fundación Museo Sorolla, Madrid

After the dancing sun in the scenes in the preceding galleries, it takes a moment to readjust to the dark intensity and red and black costumes of these pictures, but the readjustment is worthwhile for it’s an extraordinary assembly: the couple from Salamanca a brilliant example.

But of course his forte was the beach and Spanish gardens, and the exhibition offers plenty of those, many featuring his wife and family. From Strolling along the Seashore (in Valencia where the family returned most summers), to The Siesta (1911), which is one of Sorolla’s most innovative paintings with its brilliant florescent green shades that verges on abstraction, they are a delight.

Review by Theresa Thompson Art correspondent, Timeless Travels magazine


Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light is organised by the National Gallery and the National Gallery of Ireland, in collaboration with the Museo Sorolla, Madrid.

Showing until: 7 July 2019

Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, London


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