Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light at the National Gallery

Sewing the Sail, 1896. This enormous picture, some three metres long, is a wonderful demonstration of Sorolla’s ability to handle the both the strong Spanish sun, and the complexities of simulating volume and mass in a large block of white. In this picture a family sit in mottled sunlight mending a fisherman’s sail with the beach and the sea beyond. The sail itself dominates the centre of the image and it requires outstanding technique to ensure that it is not simply a block of white surrounded by colour. At the same time, Sorolla has also fully introduced us to the character of the various participants each of which are given the careful treatment of a stand-alone portrait. It is a joyful picture.

In the summer of 1908, the Grafton Galleries in London held a major selling exhibition of paintings by Joaquin Sorolla, then at the height of his powers. He was described in the catalogue as ‘the world’s greatest living painter’, consistent with a description of him in a Spanish essay the previous year as ‘grandson of Velazquez, son of Goya’.

Despite his clear position as the inheritor of the finest traditions of Spanish painting, and despite a highly successful show in Paris the previous year, the London exhibition was not a success. Few paintings were bought, none entered public collections and Sorolla largely disappeared from British consciousness. Consequently this major exhibition of this work is the first in the UK since 1908 and stands as a terrible rebuke to all those who walked past this huge talent some 110 years ago.

Like most people in the UK I was entirely ignorant of Sorolla and his work until I saw this exhibition. But what a revelation. Sorolla is a painter of enormous who is equally successful at society portraits, biting social commentary informal beach scenes, and landscapes and gardens. The common themes of his work across all these themes is his handling of light and colour, his ability to reproduce the sparkle of Spanish sun on the Mediterranean Seanad his mastery of the infinite variety of white. His pictures would warm the coldest interior and demonstrate a mastery of light that is the equal of any of the Impressionists.

The exhibition is on until early July and demands your attention.

Another Marguerite, 1892. This picture was one of Sorolla’s first forays into paintings with a strong social message. Apparently based on a scene he had personally witnessed, it shows a young woman being taken by train to her trial on a charge of murdering her infant. The Marguerite in the title refers to a character in Gounod’s opera Faust who kills the child from her rape by Faust. The picture amply portrays the overwhelming misery of the position from which there be only losers. Even the guards accompanying the prisoner seem overwhelmed by the misery of the situation. To create the picture Sorolla positioned his models in a real railway carriage so that he could accurately represent the muted colours and the play of light through the small, high windows.
Clotilde in a Black Dress, 1906. Clotilde Garcia del Castillo was Sorolla’s wife and favourite model. And if the pictures are any reflection of reality, which pictures usually are, she was the enduring love of his life. Painted some 18 years after their marriage this society portrait of his wife shows her as both strong and glamorous. The artist’s appreciation of his subject is clear for all to see. Exhibited in Sorolla’s first exhibition in the United States, it was immediately purchased by the Metropolitan Museum.
Female Nude, 1902. Based loosely on the Rokeby Venus which Sorolla had seen in London, this nude admires her wedding ring whilst lying on pink satin that glistens and almost seems alive in the sunshine. Although never revealed as such in his lifetime, the model was his wife Clotilde and he was sufficiently fond of the picture to ensure that it was never so.d in his lifetime. Instead it sat above the fireplace in his study, sold only after his death.
Running along the Beach, 1908. I think of no other picture which quite so nicely captures the sense of freedom and excitement that children can enjoy running free on a beach. The sense of joy and movement that flows from the picture is almost overwhelming. The play of light on bodies, dresses and the sea is uncanny. And when you look closely at the image you realise that it is all created with large, loose brushstrokes; the work of a painter to whom the handling of paint is now instinctive second nature. He is a conjuror in oils.