The current exhibition at the National Gallery “Sorolla, Spanish Master of Light” has a less ambitious title than the last Sorolla exhibition that took place in London, more than a hundred years ago. In the exhibition held at Mayfair’s Grafton Galleries in 1908, he was indeed applauded as the “World’s Greatest Living Painter”. This overlooked the fact that the young Pablo Picasso was just about to prove himself as the great history-of-art-maker that we know, and that Monet, Cezanne and Matisse were well alive and painting. Still, this small sin of pride isn’t enough to justify the lack of affection and recognition Sorolla’s work has suffered in Britain in the past one hundred years. The exhibition at the National Gallery restores Sorolla as the fascinating and brilliant artist he has always been.
Sorolla, born in 1863, was almost a hero in his native country and in particular in his hometown of Valencia, which inspired his best-known beach scenes. Brought up by his uncle, he worked as a teenager in the workshop of a photographer where he learnt about light by retouching plates, a lesson he would never forget. He later married the daughter of the photographer, Clotilde, who remained his favourite model for the rest of his life. Clotilde’s silhouette punctuates the rooms of the exhibition, and one can recognize her magnetic presence in formal portraits as well as in snapshots of her daily life caught in the moment by her husband. The small but delightful painting Clotilde and Elena on the Rocks in Javea, Spain painted in 1905 depicts a typical holiday scene with Clotilde and one of her daughters roaming in the rocks of the Spanish coastal town Javea as the sun is going down. In the background Sorolla offers, as always, a stunningly beautiful evocation of the orange sunlight reflecting on the rocks.
The Spanish master was not a painter of details. Sorolla worked very fast and exclusively from nature, which enabled him to catch scenes of the everyday life in the instant. This spontaneous way of painting applied all the more to his beach scenes and his landscapes, where he would work rapidly in order to catch the light of the instant. When Sorolla did not have time to complete his painting in one day, he would wait for a similar light to appear in the following days, sometimes leaving his works forever unfinished. In keeping with the Impressionist tradition, light is indeed the main character in Sorolla’s paintings. He created visual feasts of colours which culminated in his shimmering seascapes and scenes capturing the Spanish coast in Valencia or nearby. When looking at these sun-filled pictures, you feel transported to the beach on a sunny summers holiday, almost hearing the bursts of laughter of children running along the beach and playing in the waves.
The majority of Sorolla’s paintings are full of joy and life, but the exhibition also highlights that he was not always a painter of pleasant seascapes that he is commonly known. In his earlier years, Sorolla gained a reputation as a social painter, observing Spanish social reality in its cruellest details, yet with a compassionate eye. His most spectacular works of this period are displayed in this pivotal exhibition. Sad Inheritance was his last big painting with a social theme, a harsh but accurate depiction of disabled children taking a sea bath under the supervision of a monk. The painting, which he completed in 1899, achieved a great success when displayed at the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition. Thanks to the visual impact of the extraordinarily deep blue sea in contrast to the pale, frail bodies and the poignancy of the scene, Sorolla was rewarded a Grand Prix by the French government, beating Klimt and Whistler. It may have been this painting which initiated his particular fondness for the depiction of children playing by the sea, which later became one of his favourite subjects.
The exhibition at the National Gallery draws a portrait of Sorolla as a pleasant and joyful man who was not insensitive towards the reality of his time, a painter who belonged to the tradition of Spanish painting following the line of Velasquez. If his work feels sometimes a bit old-fashioned, it is always pleasant to look at, with each of his pictures becoming a declaration of love to his country.
Discussing the show with the friend I had visited it with, we forced ourselves to comply to the difficult exercise of picking only two pictures as our favourites, as I sometimes do when leaving an exhibition. Two works immediately came to my mind.
The first one was to me the most touching of the show: Sorolla’s wife Clotilde and their new-born daughter Elena lying in bed, depicted through the eyes of the proud father. The painting, soberly entitled Mother and first exhibited in 1901, illustrates the tenderness of the relationship between the mother and her child. The pastel white tones of the walls and the bed linen generate a serene and relaxing atmosphere and enable the spectator to focus on the faces of the mother and her baby. The tender gaze of the mother towards her child seems both protective and proud and confers the painting its status of a homage to maternity.
My second choice was one of the last paintings of the exhibition, a picture called the Siesta, painted in 1911. This ambitious composition portrays four women resting on the grass, caught on an odd angle as Sorolla excludes the horizon to give the viewer the impression that he is himself lying in the grass. This idyllic depiction of a moment of peace during a lazy afternoon was painted during the family’s summer stay in San Sebastian, most likely as a leisure for the painter rather than with the intention of selling it. This allowed Sorolla to paint so loosely, using a quick and sketchy brushstroke, making parts of the painting almost abstract.
Here is where Sorolla’s work is the most interesting to me; in those tender and private portraits of his family, the painter gives free rein to his inspiration and his brush, making his pictures indisputably modern.