In 2009 the El Prado museum in Madrid broke a 10-year record in attendance, surpassing blockbuster exhibitions on El Greco and Goya in previous years. The artist who attracted such striking success was none other than the painter Joaquín Bastida I Sorolla (1863 – 1923), whose style and seemingly mundane subject matter did not render him popular with all the critics for a large part of the 20th Century. But Sorolla’s work would outshine the critics with the dazzling light of his beloved Valencia and of the Mediterranean Sea, and today nobody would dispute that Sorolla is the unrivalled ‘master of light’, celebrated in collections all over the world, from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to the Met in New York.
Looking at painters’ use of light in this period gives us great insight into the social and cultural history of Spain. According to the art historian Francisco Calvo Serraller, Sorolla stood in a more academic positivist trend within Spanish painting whereas painters such as his contemporary Ignacio Zuloaga reflected a much more introspective, dramatic and dark Spain: La España Profunda or La España Negra. Serraller’s analysis is based on the contrast between two different ‘Spains’; one lighter and more dynamic and the other burdened by its history and ancestral traditions. Many would argue that this duality is still pertinent and that in some ways this interplay between opposing tendencies to resist and embrace change is what gives Spanish culture its ‘kick’.
Spanish painters became interested in capturing light and its effects at a time when discoveries about the optical laws governing light had prompted a big shift in emphasis. It was not simply that light mattered, it became a subject in itself: whether shadows, reflections, filtered light or atmospheric light. Inspired and challenged by the advent of photography, artists now pushed representation beyond academic realism in order to capture the fleeting moment, and that would in turn determine their subject matter and style.
In this context, Sorolla is often considered a post-impressionist who seized these new developments and used light in a completely novel way.
Although the subjects represented in his paintings were gardens, forests, portraits, landscapes and architecture, he is best known for the coastal scenes that were infused with a vivid sense of immediacy.
Historian Carmen Gracia observed that Sorolla’s main objectives were determined by “the passionate acceptance of concepts close to the scientific spirit, such as optimism, universalism of perception, and sincerity in the reproduction of reality”. He himself presented his works as simple and truthful transpositions of nature, painted in plein air.
In contrast to the dark, symbolic and mysterious forms of contemporary painters such as Zuloaga, Sorolla’s forms neither seek to emerge from the night shadows nor disappear into them, but stand pure and bright in the rational light of day. This lack of deference for what was considered a more ‘authentic’, critical and decadent aesthetic did not always earn Sorolla praise amongst the Spanish intelligentsia of the time. Whilst Zuloaga was championed by most of the intellectual and literary elite of the time – the ‘Generation of 98’ – the popular writer Azorín celebrated Sorolla’s work and often alluded to it in his novels.
Of his painting Las Grupas, Azorín said:
“Compared to the Castillian planes, the Valencia sky is milky white. And the earth, under this pale sky, is dissolved, it fades in multiple tones of grey. What is certain is that in Valencia the predominant colour is white…it is the air itself. It is precisely not the colour but the air that Sorolla has painted and what makes his painting sublime”.
Indeed Las Grupas was a highly emotive work for Sorolla, as he was painting his birthplace after years of absence. Completed in March 1916, the painting is a hymn of praise for Valencia, an orgy of rich and bold colour.
However, in order to understand the contrast with the preceding theatrical use of light by painters in the tradition of Murillo and Velázquez, whose chiaroscuro strongly influenced Sorolla’s contemporaries, we need to look at how Sorolla uses light as a compositional device.
In Las Grupas the celeste blue of the sky is tinged with white. White itself is the organising principle of the composition. It is a kind of flash of light that shines particularly on the horse’s neck and the farmer’s dress and lends its luminous intensity to the whole canvas, acting as the organising principle around which all the other elements in the painting are constructed.
That Valencian sky is also present in Elche, el Palmeral (the Palm Grove). The diffused light of the sky fills the background in between the palm trees but the sky blue here has been transformed into whites and greys by means of a subtle sfumato, hazy and atmospheric.
El Palmeral is a dazzling exercise in filtered light which probably had a social undertone. Like his friend Azorín, Sorolla believed that it was ordinary workers who would propel Spain out of the crisis that followed the loss of the colonies and the political instability of the 1890s. Here, the farmers are seen collecting dates, hard and monotonous work, but nature is just as important…the figures are perfectly integrated in the landscape, especially the proud female at the centre. She is the queen of the palm forest, with a hand on her waist, looking slightly defiant and fatigued at the same time, with a kind of quiet confidence and serenity.
Both Las Grupas and El Palmeral were part of an ambitious commission by Archer Milton Huntington for the Hispanic Society of America in New York, where it can still be seen today. Measuring 70 metres long and 3.5 metres high, Visions of Spain was initially conceived as a series about the history of Spain. Sorolla, however, preferred to connect it to contemporary customs and traditions to reflect the diversity of the country, showing all its different regions and peoples.
Whilst impressive in its breadth and scale, Visions did not step out of ‘costumbrismo’ – the description of regional customs – and both Sorolla and Huntington noted that the Spain represented in its murals was already “on the point of disappearing”. Today, Sorolla is perhaps better known for those works that expressed more closely his immediate reality, such as the remarkable Walk on the Beach.
The painting depicts his wife Clotilde and his daughter María strolling by the beach, and it has a wonderful sense of corporeality achieved by bold, economical confident ‘patches’ of paint. The Chilean critic Rodriquez Mendoza compared Sorolla to Velázquez, for neither of these painters presented figures in outlines or detail.
“If we stand back, the chaotic patches gradually take shape and give an appearance of harmony; the complexions become deep-set, the lips quiver and speak, the hair interwoven with the atmosphere turns to threads of silver and gold (…) Sorolla seeks to refine, even more than Velázquez, the latter’s method of interpreting reality”.
Walk on the Beach at over four square metres, possesses a monumental quality. The shoreline has been lifted until it reaches the upper edge of the painting so that the figures seem like cutouts juxtaposed on the surface. There are three elements that stand out: the blue of the sea, the ochre of the sand and of course Sorolla’s emblematic white. There is pure white as well as white tinged by other colours: blue, mauve and violet reflections that help produce the effects of the shade.
Whether in the corporeal quality of Walk on the Beach or the ethereal and ineffable quality of the sfummato in Visions of Spain, Sorolla’s light not only creates atmosphere and imparts form, it actually leads the composition.
If in Walk on the Beach we can see the triple colour scheme of his paintings (white, yellow and blue), the absolute protagonist of La Siesta is surely green. Applied here in vigorous brushstrokes, it achieves a masterful impression of filtered light that strongly conveys the feeling of a lazy afternoon, unburdened by the problems of the world. The place was not, in fact, the Mediterranean coast but that of the north of Spain in San Sebastián. The power of the image lies in the contrast of the white dresses and the dark grass in the shade but there is too an overall musicality of tones.
La Siesta is considered one of Sorolla’s most avant-garde paintings thanks to its expressive freedom, as it was likely done in a moment of leisure. After all, the painting was not intended for the market but merely for the intimate enjoyment and delight in the exercise of painting and the contemplation of his loved ones.
The figures are believed to be his wife Clotilde, his two daughters and a cousin. However, they are not recognisable because they are big patches of colour! The impasto brushstrokes hold a thousand hues that are stimulating, playful and full of energy. The movement of the brush is so energetic that it almost contradicts the calm of the scene.
In 1916, whilst having a break from the murals for the Hispanic Society, he painted The PinkRobe. Two female figures, one blond and more mature, and the other dark haired and younger, adjust their light robes in a beach cabin, a makeshift structure with a reed door.
The body of one of the women disappears amongst the windswept sheets or tablecloths whilst she fixes the strap of the other woman’s dress. The dark haired woman holds her arm high to make it easier for her friend to move her hands over her shoulder. In so doing she is adopting the pose of a classical figure, a contrapposto, and the way she looks over her shoulder seems to echo the solemnity of an ancient goddess. The robe adheres to her body like a Greek statue and fills the space, framed by the white sheets behind which now evoke the sails of a vessel.
The light that comes through fills the figures and the space with a profusion of filtered light, beautifully rendered in yellows and blues which are concentrated in some points but at the same time are musically arranged all over the scene. This reference to classical poses and monumentality is an echo of the Mediterranean’s Hellenistic past, connecting it to its classical roots.
Sorolla’s rapid execution and his brilliance as a colorist is also manifest in his early work Mother and daughter. Although Sorolla adhered to academic principles in his early career, his use of colour may be regarded as an escape from realist excesses. Here, we see the head of Clotilde, Sorolla’s wife, lying amongst the pillows of a wide bed, and alongside her, the tiny head of their newborn daughter Elena. There is tenderness but also a deliberate meagreness in this sparse composition, dominated by white and grey pale tones. Indeed the myriad hues of white rendered here shimmer with emotion and contribute beautifully to the ‘freshness’ of the scene.
In Boys at the Beach we are once again witness to the chromatic qualities of light and the play of reflections and shadows but more importantly, to the way light plays a determinant role in the geometry of the painting.
He has portrayed the subject in a foreground scene with no horizon. He converts the movement of the sea, the gleams of light on the water and the children’s bodies, their reflections in the water, and the colored shadows projected over the surface of the sea and sand into a purely painterly exercise.
Despite the large size of the canvas, the artist painted it directly from life.
The slightly oblique position of the boy in the immediate foreground draws the viewer into the scene. The boys’ positions are staggered and their poses become more relaxed the farther they are from the viewer, enhanced by a comparable intensification in the colouring of the bodies.
The colours range from the peachy white with mauve accents of the blond, fairer-skinned boy in the foreground to the more tanned skin of the second, darker-haired boy to the reddish bronze of the boy in the background. The highlights, which also heighten in intensity towards the background, capture the sunlight on the gradually submerging bodies.
The artist has represented the movement of water around the bodies with very broad brushstrokes in shades of turquoise, blue, violet and mauve, which he often employed in works depicting swimmers.
Sorolla takes pains to show the slight dip in the sand caused by the undercurrent around the feet of the boy in the middle. The rendering of the double silhouettes projected by the figures of the first two boys is masterful. The lower parts relate to their reflections in the water and the upper parts closer to their heads are their actual shadows, painted in an intense violet, as directly observed by the artist in the bright midday light of Spain’s east coast.
Sorolla’s canvases are a sensual celebration of nature and the Iberian light, perhaps too wholesome for some of the writers and critics of the period who considered that Spain had to go through a somber, self-critical existential phase before moving forward. And so it was that the austere and dark Spain found expression in the paintings of Ignacio Zuloaga. Whilst the other Spain, dynamic and life affirming, had found its modern expression in Sorolla whose works continue to inspire us today.
Elena Ortega is Spanish-born but has lived in Australia since 1992. She has a passion for Fine Arts, European history and literature, with particular expertise in Spain. Elena is a practicing painter who regularly exhibits her work, has a Bachelor of Arts from Sydney University and a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the National Art School, where she is currently undertaking a Masters. She has won numerous academic prizes for her study in art history and theory, including a scholarship to the London Royal College of Art. Elena is a host at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, where she enjoys sharing her enthusiasm about art, and teaches Spanish language, culture and society at WEA, Sydney. She lived in Granada for a number of years and loves this region, immortalised by Ernest Hemingway and Gerald Brenan, but she has also spent time living in Madrid and Barcelona – as well as her native Zaragoza, of course!