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January 30, 2007

Sorolla: Workaholic Painter

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Maybe being a Spaniard had something to do with it.

No artist-as-genius posturing from Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923). The man some regard as Spain's greatest painter since Velázquez (others might peg Goya as the previous reference point) was a family-oriented, bourgeois (in the best sense) workaholic whose burn-out took the form of a stroke at age 57 and death three years later.

Showy, publicly-egotistical artists were a 20th century commonplace and also could be found in the late 19th century as artists completed their Western social evolution from craftsmen to Independent Geniuses. For example, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), a generation older than Sorolla, played the new rôle to the hilt.

Nevertheless, most artists were cautious, pre-1900. The ideal career path led from training at a reputable academy to winning prizes allowing a few years' study in Italy soaking in the masters to getting works hung in Academy displays to making contacts with people rich enough to commission portraits -- a painter's most reliable meal-ticket.

Separated from mainstream artistic, cultural and political Europe by the Pyrenees and western Mediterranean, Spain was a conservative place well into the 20th century. Flamboyant Spanish artists such as Picasso and Dalí made their reputations in France rather than in their homeland. Aside from student years in Italy and business-related trips plus the occasional vacation, Sorolla dwelled in Spain his entire life.

A fine new Sorolla biography by his great-grand-daughter Blanca Pons-Sorolla is a good place to familiarize yourself with the artist. I used it and an earlier (out-of-print) book by Edmund Peel containing an essay by grandson Francisco Pons Sorolla as source material for this post.

Fortunately for art historians and Sorolla devotees, Sorolla left a considerable paper-trail in the form of letters to his beloved wife Clotilde who, unlike other spouses of the famous, saved rather than burned the correspondence. Since Clotilde's job was maintaining the household and raising their three children, she remained in Madrid, aside from family trips to the seashore, while Sorolla was away in various parts of Spain painting plein-air, his preferred method. And while away, he wrote his wife as often as he could, describing the sights that inspired him, telling her how much he missed her and, in the half-dozen or so years before his stroke, expressing worries about his health and stamina. The book includes many snippets from those letters.

Sorolla was born in Valencia, which remained his favorite part of Spain. Orphaned before his third birthday, he was adopted by his mother's sister. He began formal art instruction as a teenager and began to win prizes before turning 20. By the time he was turning 22 he had been awarded a study grant and was off to Rome and elsewhere in Italy for the next four years with interruptions for visits to Paris and home. On one visit home he married Clotilde García del Castillo, daughter of photographer Antonio García Peris, Sorolla's patron while in his late teens.

Sorolla returned to Spain in 1889 and entered his career-building phase. This involved moving to Madrid and entering paintings in important exhibitions, winning prizes, and parlaying the notoriety from those prizes and sets of newer paintings to win more prestigious prizes.

By 1903, at age 40, he was well-established as one of Spain's very best painters and was known and respected in the European art world. He knew artists of comparable ability (and with whom he has been grouped). These include fellow-workaholic John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and near-contemporary Anders Zorn (1860-1920), the latter becoming a good friend.

In 1909 Sorolla and his wife traveled to the United States where a large exhibit of his work was held at the new Hispanic Society of America in New York along with smaller exhibits in Buffalo and Boston. Crowds were large and sales were substantial -- enough to fund his dream of building a large house in Madrid that would also serve as a museum for his paintings.

The American visit stemmed from a 1908 London meeting with Archer M. Huntington, Hispanophile and founder of the Hispanic Society. Huntington loomed large for the rest of Sorolla's life because he commissioned a set of large paintings dealing with the regions of Spain to decorate the society's building. This led Sorolla, ever the workaholic and plein-air devotee, to travel about the country researching his subjects. It was during the period of the commission (1911-19) that age and over-work caught up with him, leading to his 1920 stroke.


Sorolla - postage stamp.jpg
Sorolla honored on postage stamp.

Sorolla - Sad Inheritance! - 1899.jpg
Sad Inheritance! - 1899
This was a career-builder painting that was widely exhibited and honored. Sorolla tended to avoid "social message" subject such as this.

Sorolla - Clotilda Seated on a Sofa - 1901.jpg
Clotilde Seated on a Sofa - 1901
Like many artists, Sorolla used family members as subjects. To some degree this was recreational painting for him, as he did a good deal of commissioned portraiture. Among his sitters were King Alfonso XIII and President William Howard Taft.

Sorolla - Female Nude - 1902.jpg
Female Nude - 1902
Sorolla painted few studio nudes. Here's one, just to show that he could do it.

After the Bath - 1908.jpg
After the Bath - 1908
It's hard to see in this reproduction, but Sorolla does an especially skilled job of painting thin, wet cloth on the woman's leg.

Strolling Along the Seashore - 1909.JPG
Strolling Along the Seashore - 1909
This is in the Sorolla Museum in Madrid. I find the face of the woman to the right especially delftly painted.

Sorolla - Louis Comfort Tiffany - 1911.jpg
Portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany - 1911
This was painted during Sorolla's second trip to the United States.

Sorolla - The Tuna Catch, Ayamonte - 1919.jpg
The Tuna Catch, Ayamonte - 1919
Final painting of the Hispanic Society of America commission. Just over a year later, Sorolla had his stroke.

If you want to see Sorolla paintings, a good East Coast place to start would probably be the Hispanic Society of America in New York City (see link above). I haven't visited it yet, but will make a strong effort to do so the next time I'm in New York. For West Coasters, a place to start is San Diego; see this post.

Sorolla worked fast and large. Aside from oil sketches, many of his works tend to be a meter or two long per side. His earliest paintings were fairly tightly done renditions of the historical subjects favored by academies in those days. But visits to Madrid and the Prado soon brought him under the spell of Velázquez and he took up a loose style where subjects were suggested rather than rendered. And while painting at a pace of one completion every three days or so while at his favorite seashore "vacation" locations, he had to use a loose technique.

Like his friends Sargent and Zorn, Sorolla was never tempted to depart what might be called a Post-Impressionist style for any of the artistic isms of the 20th century.

Thank heaven for that.



posted by Donald at January 30, 2007


Sorolla always strikes me as being a one trick pony. He mastered the effects of strong light, beach light, on sails and light clothing; no small feat, I'll grant you -- and repeated it, endlessly. A good painter, but with a very narrow range.

Posted by: ricpic on January 30, 2007 8:54 PM

Sorolla could paint just about anything he wanted. His intent was to show the beautiful in life, so he painted what most great realistic painters paint and love-light! And his family, his country, his friends, etc. Plus some well-heeled people who paid the bills. I absolutely love his work. Only a few othesr have ever captured the effect of sunlight like he did.

BTW, if you could paint like that, why in the world would you go in for the post-impressionist BS? I'd stay out on the beach!

Posted by: btm on January 31, 2007 12:39 AM

That's good fun. Do you happen to know where I can see some of his stuff in Britain? Or, thinks!, Barcelona?

Posted by: dearieme on January 31, 2007 6:48 AM

Thanks for this -- I'd been sadly deficient in Sorolla-knowledge. The paintings seem serene and sumptuous in (as you point out) a cheery and loose kind of way. We should all have such a great attitude towards our work. Any sense of how he saw his art? Simply as work he as a craftsman was doing? More mystically and/or pretentiously than that? I wonder about that bit about turning his house into a museum ... Did he see himself taking his place in art history, anything like that? Or did he just love some of his work so much he wanted to show it off forever? Hmm, maybe those two options don't have to be mutually exclusive ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 31, 2007 12:00 PM

Sorolla and Zorn both always leave me with the same feeling: they're praised as painters, but what really hits home is their awe-inspiring draftsmanship. Donald's examples are too small on the computer screen to really show how superhumanly assured Sorolla's drawing was; you can't paint like that unless you can draw like that.

A few years ago I made the trek far, far uptown in Manhattan to the Hispanic Society, which is quite an experience. My major surprise was to see how very, very thinly Sorolla worked on many of those giant canvases; often you're looking at turpentine washes that only tint very evident yards of canvas rather than on a rich or creamy surface of oil paint. In that respect he did NOT follow the example of his mentor, Velasquez; I've never seen a finished Velasquez painting with that kind of surface treatment. On the other hand, I haven't seen too many easel paintings by Sorolla; perhaps those are more traditional in treatment.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 31, 2007 7:58 PM

We visited the Sorolla museum (his house and garden in Madrid) again last June. It has been newly restored and is a marvelous private museum with some of his finest work. One of the great pieces is the young boy leading a horse out of the surf. There are smaller paintings and as Fv surmises they are more traditionally worked canvases. Many of the large pieces depict the regional costumes of early 20th C Spain, most of the collection centers around Valencia. You always leave in the most splendid mood of delight, his paintings just breathe the beauty of sunlight like no others. Sunlight, water, flesh, clothing in the wind.

Posted by: Bob Garlitz on January 31, 2007 9:27 PM

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