Joaquin Sorolla, Sewing the Sail, 1896
National Gallery London until 7 July 2019
Not since the early 1900s when Joacquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) was considered the world’s greatest living painter has he been given the honour he so richly deserves – albeit a little late in the day – a major solo exhibition at London’s National Gallery featuring sixty of his paintings.
I visited the show briefly last week and will come back again and again to see these joyful, life affirming works depicting humanity at its best, though not all his works are devoid of darkness. This is a veritable feast for the eyes, making my heart soar and my delight reflected back in the faces of those approaching me. These works are utterly seductive. If you are lucky enough to be in London and get the chance, go to the National Gallery before 7 July 2019.
Whether I’m viewing an exhibition on my own or with a friend, I instinctively listen in on the conversations of others and they never cease to surprise or even shock. On this occasion, I listened intently to the numerous Spanish speakers as I tried and failed to translate their reactions save to establish that their conversations were by equal measure serious and intense. Perhaps Sorolla is already considered one of the Spanish masters, but his compatriots certainly seemed less enraptured than Londoners who are seeing Sorolla’s work for the first time, I would imagine.
Technically brilliant as an artist, Sorolla’s unique skill is his ability to catch the light in his painting, reflect it onto bodies, buildings or gardens, and contrast sun with shade in a brilliant display of chiaroscuro, the dramatic mingling of light and dark. It was Monet who initially endorsed Sorolla and who coined the soubriquet ‘the master of light’ about his formidably gifted contemporary.
As a plein air painter, Sorolla’s gift becomes instantly apparent at first glance of Afternoon at the Beach in Valencia, 1904, to such an extent that my first reaction was to reach for the sunglasses on my head, a reflex action to shade my eyes from the reflective light of the blistering sun dappling the water. But this is London. In March. And yet, I was enveloped in the sun’s warmth for just a moment and was magically transported to the glistening, dazzling Valencia coast of a century passed.
Sorolla’s use of white, startling white, vivid and luscious is utterly beguiling in several paintings including, Sewing the Sail, 1896. This effect is most likely achieved by painting dark colours including amber underneath with shades of white on top, possibly flake white because adding lead to the oil helps produce this visual phenomena (lead of course is no longer in use). Master of light and master of white.
At the sight of Mother 1895-1900, I almost wept when confronted with the most tender moving scene depicting his wife, Clotilde, on a heavenly soft white bed alongside her infant, the mother facing her newborn with only their heads on display. The only dark colour visible is the mother’s hair. Dynamic delightful paintings of children in the summer sea are utterly compelling, the sizzling sunshine on their golden limbs was painted using long brush strokes. You can sense the vitality of the children running on the edge of the sea. Perfectly encapsulating Sorolla’s unique gift, a contemporary once said, “I don’t know what brush contains such sun”.
On occasion, some of the portraits of his wife and daughters dressed in beautiful gowns have echoes of John Singer Sargent but they are also reminiscent of Alma Tadema’s Coign of Vantage, 1895. Sorolla claimed that his best work and the painting he was most proud of was The Pink Robe, 1916, depicts his wife in the style of a Roman goddess. Influenced by and following in the footsteps of the Spanish masters, de Goya and Velasques, Sorolla pays homage to Velasques’ Las Meninas, 1656 with a mysterious and austere family portrait, My Family, 1901. This tableau is not without humour as Sorolla’s own face appears in a mirror.
Though Sorolla painted several portraits, he did not wish to be seen merely as a portrait artist, rather to be remembered for social realism, an artist who painted what he saw. Sorolla had a formidable work ethic and felt compelled to paint, frequently scenes of humanity’s darker moments, e.g. The Drunkard Zarauz 1910, shows men drinking in the bar after work till their eyes are bleary and unfocused. More distressing is the atmospheric painting of the mother accused of maternal filicide, Another Marguerite, 1892 She is seated on a bench alone with only a guard watching, but it is her pleading eyes that hold the viewer because they are filled with ineffable fear. For me, it felt intrusive to observe her distress any longer than was strictly necessary.
During and after the painting of Sad Inheritance, 1899, Sorolla was deeply troubled by the profound effect the experience had on him. The painting depicts institutionalised disabled boys on a rare day out to the beach accompanied by a dark robed priest. At that time, Spanish society and most notably the church, believed that children were disabled because of the sins of their parents. Perhaps it felt voyeuristic to intrude upon the vulnerability of the children, consequently Sorolla would never again paint a similar scene.
There is certainly more light than dark in this exhibition and you get a flavour of ordinary life in Spain at the turn of the century in all its quotidian glory. Particularly remarkable is the artist’s love of his wife and family who regularly sat for him – Sorolla was orphaned young – but equally he recognised his gift as an artist. He left behind a vast collection of paintings before his untimely death at age 60 shortly after suffering from a stroke. His Madrid home is now open to the public and houses a large collection of his works. And that’s where I will be heading next time I get to Spain.