I recently visited the Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light exhibition at National Gallery, London that featured the visually enticing work of Joaquín Sorolla y Basteda (1863-1923). I had not yet seen his work in real life so I was highly intrigued to get a closer look.
Sorolla was described as the ‘best painter of his time’ after his solo exhibition in Paris 1908. Superficially it is not difficult to see why as his paintings display an incredible technical mastery of representational scenes, built with bold multi-angled compositions and rendered brazenly with an intense sense of colour and light that makes the work shimmer and burst with realism. Many of the pictures look incredibly lifelike, resembling still frames from a film. More than just an impressionist, his technical prowess allowed him to work in a variety of representational styles.
Naturally he was inspired by the Spanish masters Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya, yet his style seemed to fluctuate almost individually from picture to picture (in the exhibition there were classically composed compositions reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites and Corot-esque landscapes alongside quick plein-air studies and almost semi-abstract scenes. Take, for example, The Siesta. This large canvas and shows a very loose painterly outdoor scene capturing the qualities of light that Sorolla revelled in. Painted in 1906 it picks up picks up from French Impressionist Claude Monet’s own contemporary landscape paintings of swirling water and vegetation. The brazen and attacking quality of the brush marks almost seem to hint at a foretaste of expressionism, a movement in America a few decades later.
The work I most enjoyed in the exhibition was his quick plein air studies of fleeting human figures. These had an immediacy and honesty that were free from the staged qualities of his other works on display. These bright sunlit studies have influenced artists like American mid-20th century painter Wayne Thiebaud (see images below).
History, however, has generally placed Sorolla outside of the avant garde movements of his time. As paintings, his sunlit works seem to simply follow his predecessors the French Impressionistst. His society and portrait paintings were still rendered in a fairly standard classical style. By contrast, contemporary movements such as the Fauve and Les Nabis artists (e.g. Andre Derain and Pierre Bonnard) had already developed beyond naturalistic representational work, inspired by Seurat, Gauguin and Van Gogh.
Although Sorolla made several important commentaries on the social and economic conditions of the day (e.g. polio infected children on the beach, a woman on trial for infanticide) his work indicates a sensitive, conscientious and sympathetic view of the participants he depicted, rather than a cynical criticism of establishment. Other works, however, became more idealised. A mural featuring traditional Spanish cultural icons made by Sorolla for the Hispanic Society of America seems more reminiscent of George Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ rather than raw depictions of traditional folk life. (Compare his 1916 work Las Grupas, with a young Pablo Picasso’s desolate depiction of a family of travelling performers in The Family of Saltibaques painted in 1906.)
Perhaps Sorolla was caught between two generations of artistic movements: first the French Impressionists, and then modernism. Even more so his reputation is placed in the shadow of the fellow Spaniards like the aforementioned Pablo Picasso and other younger generation artists including Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró, their innovative work held up high as icons of Spanish cultural identity.
Though Sorolla’s artistic process remained inside a classical frame, his paintings were highly engaging and technically daring. For me, he remains a great artist at what he produced.