Home >Lounge >Features >Joaquin Sorolla: The Master of Spanish Sunlight

It was as though the heavens had conspired to release the sun from its cloudy prison after a long week of gloomy weather. A golden glow, bearing the promise of summer, sparkled on the façade of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London as I walked across Trafalgar Square one morning, a couple of weeks ago, to see a lavishly curated exhibition of the artist Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923). In a preamble to seeing the work of a painter who was obsessed with the sun, the day seemed to hold out a propitious sign.

As the title of the show crowns him, Sorolla was indeed the Spanish Master Of Light, a painter beloved during his lifetime for his joyous seascapes and magical gift for capturing sunlight in paint. He was especially enamoured with the radiant sun that shimmers along the Mediterranean coast during the sluggish summer months. However, even though Sorolla’s canvases were luminescent enough to make viewers want to shade their eyes as they peered at them, his subjects did not always radiate unmitigated happiness.

On the contrary, the azure skies and cool waters that Sorolla deftly brought to life often remind us of the passage of time, of innocence that must mature into experience, the chill of winter that will follow the reprieve of warm weather. It is a trope that persists in the history of art in Europe. In the 17th century, the French neoclassicist, Nicolas Poussin, painted a pastoral scene where three shepherds come across a Latin inscription—Et in Arcadia ego—carved on a rock in the middle of a sylvan summer day. One of the possible translations of this phrase is: “Even in Arcadia (meaning a land of utopian bliss), here I am." The “I", as some commentators have said, refers to death, the phrase being a reminder of mortality even amidst the glorious landscape of utopia.

Sorolla’s work, mostly filled with air and light, is also trailed by a shadow that is a touch dark. But his breathtaking skill distracts the viewer’s eye from it, training it back to the stunning realism of his style. A nearly forgotten painter of the impressionist school, Sorolla was immensely successful in his lifetime. He painted several thousand canvases and sold just as many for handsome sums of money.

Sorolla’s ‘Running Along The Beach’.
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Sorolla’s ‘Running Along The Beach’. (Getty Images)

In 1900, young Pablo Picasso travelled from Barcelona to Paris to see Sorolla’s work, displayed at the biggest cultural gala of the 19th century, The Exposition Universelle. One of Sorolla’s paintings, Sad Inheritance (1899), won critical acclaim there. It shows some young boys affected by polio, probably as a result of being born of syphilitic parents, getting ready for a palliative bath in the sea. The sight affected Sorolla profoundly. His ambivalent state of mind is mirrored in the interplay of dazzling sun-kissed bodies and the dark habits of a clergyman chaperoning his charges.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Sorolla’s fame spread beyond the continent. In America, his work caused a sensation, such that he was commissioned to make a portrait of the president, William Howard Taft, in 1909. His shows sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, making him one of the most coveted painters of his time.

Sorolla’s style, forged with an academic rigour and a touch of the opulence that marked neoclassical painting, began to fall out of favour as surrealism and cubism became the dominant modes of painting. By the time he died, his contemporary Henri Matisse was at the peak of his power and fame, though making work in an increasingly abstruse style, while younger artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, were striking out with their avant-garde idioms.

Although Sorolla has a museum dedicated to his work in Madrid, he isn’t a familiar name on the global art circuit any longer. For the National Gallery to organize an entire show around his career is a bold step, especially since his approach may now seem dated to many.

Critic Jonathan Jones, for instance, calls Sorolla a “sensualist, not a thinker" in a review of the show in The Guardian. This view isn’t untrue, though not necessarily pejorative. Born in Valencia, Sorolla went to the nearby coastal town of San Sebastián for the summer, where his senses were stirred by the holiday-makers. He spent hours on the beach, sketching and painting the people around. Several of his paintings set in this retreat feature young boys sunning themselves in the nude or running around unclothed, a practice that wasn’t unusual in Sorolla’s time.

In a series of work featuring boys on the beach, we see young bodies glistening in the beating sun, their shadows reflected on the wet sand, small feet making soft grooves on the beach. Known for the lightning pace at which he worked, Sorolla used long brushstrokes to convey a sense of motion—the bodies he painted appear to be tearing through the afternoon light, caressed by the gentle breeze and waves.

The full mastery of Sorolla’s command over his medium comes through in Sewing The Sail (1896), a large-format oil on canvas that shows men and women at work on a sail. With their faces turned down, towards the sail which lies on the ground, the characters are secondary to the composition. The viewer’s eye is drawn instantly to the mass of white sail at their feet and the chiaroscuro Sorolla evokes on its surface. In these close observations of rural life, as also in his anthropological portraits of peasants and fishermen who embodied ancient Spanish customs, Sorolla never quite scratched the surface of what he saw. His job as an artist, he said, was to show us the truth, the world as it looked in the clear light of day.

Although he was profoundly influenced by his artistic ancestors, Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya, Sorolla never claimed to be a “portrait painter". He did not have the interiority of the styles of these Old Masters. Instead, Sorolla was a narrative painter in the best sense of the term.

Sorolla’s ‘Sewing The Sail’.
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Sorolla’s ‘Sewing The Sail’. (Wikiart)

In Another Marguerite! (the title refers to a character in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust), he painted a woman on a train accused of killing her child. It wasn’t unusual for convicted criminals to be taken on public transport in Sorolla’s day. But the artist removed traces of other people from the carriage, leaving the woman at the centre with a stricken look on her face, her possessions tied in a sad bundle next to her. Two policemen, looking as dejected as her, sit on guard behind her.

In such works, as also in the more conventional group portrait of his three children, painted after Velázquez’s iconic Las Meninas (1656), Sorolla made allusions to the illustrious line of Spanish painters he felt he had succeeded. He never quite attained the stature of any of his idols, but flashes of genius did sparkle occasionally.

My favourite from the show is Sorolla’s portrait of his wife Clotilde, titled Mother (1895), soon after she had given birth to their youngest daughter Elena, lying under a pristine white sheet next to the infant. Even in the confines of the bedroom, Sorolla seems riveted by the texture of the silky covers, set off by the greyish pallor of the walls. Few painters, before or after him, have managed to orchestrate such a symphony of delicate shades.

Sorolla: Spanish Master Of Light is on display at the National Gallery in London till 7 July.

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