Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light at the National Gallery

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light at the National Gallery


This will be the first UK retrospective of the artist since 1908 when Sorolla himself mounted an exhibition at London’s Grafton Galleries where he was promoted as ‘The World’s Greatest Living Painter.’ Some claim! Considering that Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir and Degas were all still alive, and Picasso had already burst onto the scene with his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. As regards painterly skills, two  contemporaries, Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent, had it in spades, although Camille Pissarro thought that Sargent was not an ‘enthusiast, but rather an adroit performer’. Sorolla, on the other hand, painted with light, in such a way that few artists have, before or since, and not just the sea and the sky, but the sailing boats and the flesh tones of the naked children playing on the beach. Not many of his paintings sold in London, but, at his debut show in New York the following year, at the Hispanic Society of America, New Yorkers queued round the block in the snow to bask in Sorolla’s Spanish sunshine, with 160,000 visiting the exhibition in a month, and half the 350 works sold. He had painted 80 beach pictures in Valencia in just one summer, all en plein air, and these make up the most impressive of the works on display. How he achieved the three different kinds of light on the sails in The Return from Fishing, on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, is astonishing. We see the midday sun beating down on the top of the furling white sail, then we see the pale yellow ochre translucency of the sail itself, and then, we see the shadow cast onto canvas by the mast and sail. He used the same technique in Afternoon at the Beach in Valencia painted in 1904, with the artist in the shade of an ochre calico beach umbrella, whilst painting three little boys playing in the glittering sea. The manner in which he paints human flesh, particularly children’s glistening naked bodies in the shallows, is sublime. A couple of lead white smudges on the boys’ backs, legs and buttocks is enough to convey the appearance of tanned, wet bodies, to say nothing of the way in which he depicts water, the ebbing tide with all its rivulets and reflections of the sky in it.

Along with his friend Sargent, another painter whose treatment of flesh tones was supreme, was the Swedish artist Anders Zorn, although he was more interested in plump, young girls in the sauna and naked in the dappled shade of the riverbank. Apart from los chicos, Sorolla did paint a number of nudes, although only one is on show here, that of his wife Clotilde, lying on pink satin sheets and inspired by The Toilet of Venus by Velázquez, which he first saw in the collection of Rokeby Park in County Durham, before it was subsequently moved to the National Gallery. Sorolla referred to The Rokeby Venus, as it became known, as ‘the most human piece of flesh in the museum’.It is said that unscrupulous dealers were selling paintings by Sargent, with the American’s signature painted out and Sorolla’s overpainted, for five times the amount.

One social realist work, Another Marguerite (1892), depicting a young mother in custody by two Civil Guards on a train, accused of infanticide, was his earliest success. The painting, which referenced Marguerite from Gounod’s opera Faust, who was seduced by the eponymous protagonist and killed the child that was the result of it, was awarded a gold medal at the National Exhibition in Madrid, then first prize at the Chicago International Exhibition, where it was acquired for the Washington University Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. Another great work of social realism was Sorolla’s Sad Inheritance (1899), surely one of the most poignant and saddest works of art ever painted. This extremely large canvas depicted children crippled by polio, other disabilities, and in the case of two boys, blindness, bathing at the sea in Valencia, under the supervision of a monk in a black habit. The painting earned Sorolla his greatest official recognition so far, a Grand Prix and a medal of honour at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900, and the medal of honour at the National Exhibition in Madrid in 1901.

After that, he turned his back on paintings with such a social consciousness, and turned his talented eye towards his family, landscapes and people of his native province, Valencia, particularly children playing on the sand and fishermen leading the oxen pulling the wooden boats through the shallows and up onto the beach. It is as though he had tubes of oil paints simply labelled ‘Light’ in his paint-box. His Young Fisherman, Valencia, is a masterpiece of colour balance, subtlety and a limited palette. Central to the composition is a swirling basket of silvery fish, with the colours echoed in the boy’s shorts and the basket lining. Most of his young body is in a light blue and purple shadow, with the merest hint of reflected light from the basket and sand beneath his feet in orangy yellow under his arm, while one arm is in direct sunlight, broken by a dark blue shadow of the handle across his forearm.

Another audacious use of light is the shaft of lemon yellow sunlight cutting diagonally across the frame in Packing Raisins, with a tiny pin-prick of a woman’s shining earring at the centre of the composition. What amazing nerve and verve, this Spaniard had. In another’s hand, it could have been disastrous, but Sorolla paints with such fluidity, it is totally convincing. Sewing the Sail, borrowed from “Fondazione Musei Civici”, in Venice, is one of his most famous and accomplished works, and is constantly being requested for loans, so much so, that Venetians have rarely seen it in their own city. It is an astonishing rendering of cloth, with light filtering through the trellis roof, fencing and geraniums, while outside, one can see the hot Mediterranean sun beating down on the sea and shore-line. One unfamiliar painting,The White Boat, on loan from a private collection, is a triumph of painterly genius, with one of the boy’s bodies a translucent green under the water, which itself is made up of dabs of ultramarine, turquoise, green, yellow and white, but has such incredible depth.

An American, Archer Milton Huntington was a Spanish scholar, poet, collector, archeologist, numismatist and philanthropist, who founded the “Hispanic Society of America” in 1908 to promote Spanish art and culture. He was also unspeakably rich and had acquired paintings by Velázquez, El Greco and Goya, including his famous Duchess of Alba. He met Sorolla in London, and arranged for the exhibition in the Society’s building at 613 West 150th  Street. In all his purchases, he made it a principle to buy only outside Spain, ‘in order not to rob the country of its treasures,’ although he did snap up the entire library of the Marquis of Jerez de los Caballeros in 1902. Sorolla signed a contract with Huntington for $150,000 to paint a group of panels entitled Visions of Spain for the library of the Hispanic Society of America, within a five year time-frame. He worked relentlessly on the project, but also took on other commissioned portraits and continued to paint on the Valencian beaches, unrelated to Visions of Spain. He finished the final panel in 1919, but the work-load had taken its toll, and he had a stroke while painting in his magnificent gardens in Madrid, never to paint again. He died three years later.

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light

National Gallery

Until 7 July 2019

Admission £14


About author