Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923)

Madrid, Museo del Prado, from 26 May to 6 September 2009

1. Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923)
Nude Woman, 1902
Oil on canvas - 106 x 186 cm
Private collection
Photo : Press Office

The Museo del Prado is devoting its summer exhibition to Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923), the last of the great Spanish “classical” painters. After the almost continuous success of his career both in Spain, Europe and the United States there followed a long period of indifference, barely awakened by a retrospective in 1963 in Madrid celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. In 2007, an exhibition organized at the Museo Thyssen and the Fundacion Caja Madrid, first shown at the Petit Palais in Paris, juxtaposed his work to that of Sargent, his American contemporary, thus reintroducing him to the general public (see article in French). In Madrid, his home/workshop, extremely well-restored, has become a required stopover for well-informed visitors. The cycle, “Vision de España” – a masterpiece in fourteen panels painted between 1911 and 1919 for the library of the Hispanic Society of New York – was for a long time familiar only to those who dared venture into Harlem. Restored by funding from the Bancaja of Valencia, they are a highlight of the exhibition following a tour throughout Spain.

Sorolla long endured the reproach by some of the intelligentsia that he was the painter of a “joie de vivre”, far removed from the bitter vision of life as seen by Zuloaga or Unamuno. The hundred or so works brought together here, accompanied by an excellent catalogue, reveal how he responded to the artistic currents in Europe at that time. Born into a modest family in Valencia, he was brought up by his uncle, a locksmith, after being orphaned and worked his way up alone until leaving in 1885 when he traveled to Rome and Paris. His first major canvases – Another Margaret (Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri, 1892) – constitute some of the masterpieces of the current of “social realism”, the most innovative of the movements in Spanish painting then. The range of eclecticism in his pictorial influences is impressive, from the pre-Raphaelites and Symbolists with Saint Woman Praying (Prado, 1888) to Bastien Lepage and especially Manet, in his presentation of portraits (Portrait of Pérez Galdós, Casa Museo Pérez Galdós, Gran Canaria). He quickly turned to the use of the light and open air of the Valencian beaches he knew as a child, in “costumbrista” (regional customs) canvases of large format which he treats as narrative scenes rather than as a genre. His talent was acknowledged in Paris with a Gold Medal, second class, for his Return from Fishing exhibited at the Salon of 1895 and purchased by the French government (Musée d’Orsay). In 1900 he won the first prize at the Exposition Universelle with Sad Inheritance (Bancaja, Valencia) where the nude bodies of handicapped children led by a monk dissolve under the fierce light of the Valencian summer. This taste for large formats, this interest in working with pure colours also mark his most intimate scenes (ill. 1) : The immense Mother (Casa-Museo Sorolla, Madrid) is just a large white sheet drenched in light with the heads of his wife and daughter softly emerging.

2 . Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923)
Horse’s Bath, 1909
Oil on canvas - 205 x 250 cm
Madrid, Museo Sorolla
Photo : Press Office

He avoids the monotony which might have resulted from the success of his beach scenes (ill. 2) and coastal landscapes, showing a close study of Zorn’s seascapes, by adopting daring angles which reflect his personal, and the family’s, interest in photography, reflected also in his portraits. His father-in-law was García Peris, a major Spanish photographer at the time. The excellent choice of portraits in the exhibition demonstrate an extraordinary variety in the layout and presentation, both indoors and out, in the polished or sketchy treatment of the faces and a remarkable adaptation of matter and colour to the subjects whose personality is always subtly evoked (see the two Spanish Nobel winners, the poet José Echegaray (1905, Banco de España, Madrid) and the doctor Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1906, Museo de Zaragoza). The long silhouettes of his wife, Clotilde, and his daughters are seen in multiple variations of colours in a shadowy interior or outdoor light (María in Valencian Costume, 1906, private collection). Despite his loyalty to certain themes throughout his career, there is a distinct evolution in his style, revealed by a continuously more constructive stroke and an ever stronger interest for pure landscapes, much like his friend Aureliano de Beruete.

In 1909 Sorolla met the American Archer M. Huntingon in Paris, a distinguished Hispanist and the son of a railroad magnate who had devoted his wealth to promoting the knowledge of Spanish civilization thus founding the Hispanic Society in 1904 in New York at Audobon Terrace. Huntington introduced Sorolla to the American market (Portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911, Hispanic Society) and commissioned, besides several portraits of Spanish intellectuals, a Vison of Spain to cover the seventy meters of the library’s walls at the Hispanic Society. Sorolla managed to replace the historical theme initially planned by a poetic evocation of the Spanish provinces. He spent eight years traveling through Spain to study its landscapes, costumes, customs and light. The result is a radiant image, young and dynamic, unreal but nevertheless endearing which he painted with extraordinary vigor on fourteen panels. The project probably explains his declining health and he died in 1923, barely sixty years old. A recent restoration has recovered the vivid colours and light instilled by the artist. The hang on the second floor of the new rooms at the Prado does not of course impact visitors in the the same way as when discovering them in the magical and almost unknown location of the Hispanic Society but it will undoubtedly succeed in helping make this great artist, who straddled tradition and modernity, better known once again.

Collective work, Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), Madrid, El viso Editiones, 2009, 536 pages, 42,75 €, ISBN : 9788495241658.

Visitor Information : Museo del Prado, Calle Ruiz de Alarcón, 28014 Madrid. Phone : +34 91 330 2800. Open daily except Monday, from 9.00 to 20.00. Rates : 10 € and 5 €.

Version française

, vendredi 10 juillet 2009

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