Joaquín Sorolla: Master of Light

One hundred years ago, if you asked an American or European art lover who the most important Modern Spanish artist was, the answer would have been Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (Spanish, 1863 – 1923). This centennial year of the artist’s death was declared the Year of Sorolla in Spain and many exhibitions have celebrated Sorolla’s works. In the United States, the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas is exhibiting works by Sorolla until January 7, 2024. The exhibition features works from American collections and is called “Spanish Light,” a fitting title for any exhibition of the artist’s work. Sorolla said

"I hate darkness. Claude Monet once said that painting in general did not have light enough in it. I agree with him. We painters, however, can never reproduce sunlight as it really is. I can only approach the truth of it."

Joaquín Sorolla was born in Valencia, Spain, on the east coast of Spain. His home region was a constant source of inspiration for the artist; the beaches, fishing boats, and traditions of Valencia appear in many of his paintings. At the age of 18, Sorolla went to Madrid where he studied the paintings exhibited in the Prado Museum, especially the works of his great Spanish predecessor Diego Velazquez. Velazquez’ bold painterly approach is apparent throughout Sorolla’s career. In 1881, he was awarded a four year grant to study in Rome after which he visited Paris for a short period. In his early career, he was most influenced by Realist artists like Jules Bastien-Lepage. In the late 19th century, his focus was on large history paintings, that is, scenes of historical, religious, and moral themes. These works were exhibited at the Salons in Paris and Madrid and at the international expositions that were popular in Europe and the United States at the time. His works received medals and other awards at several of these high profile exhibitions.

In the first decades of the 20th century, Sorolla was widely celebrated, given membership in academies in Paris, Lisbon, Valencia and nominated as a Knight of the Legion of Honor in Paris. In this period, Sorolla’s works became brighter and more painterly, in part due to his friendship with artists John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn. Sargent in turn began to paint landscapes influenced by Sorolla’s work. In 1906, five hundred of Sorolla’s works were exhibited at the important Galleries Georges Petit in Paris. Petit had been a prominent advocate of the Impressionists and the affinities of Sorolla’s works with the light-filled works of the Impressionists must have appealed to Petit. The critical and financial success of this show led to exhibitions in England and Germany, and then in 1909, in the United States. Sorolla’s first American exhibition was a big hit; of over 350 works, over half sold. As the artist’s profile in the United States rose steadily, Sorolla was even commissioned to paint President Taft’s portrait in the White House. Two years later a second exhibition of Sorolla’s work, this time in Saint Louis and Chicago, broadened the artist’s appeal in the United States and led to another commission, to create a series of large murals for the Hispanic Society of America. The subject of the series is the various regions of Spain. Originally titled “The Provinces of Spain,” the murals are known today as “Vision of Spain” and are still on view at the Society's museum in New York City. The 14 murals are almost twelve feet tall and cover a combined 200 feet of wall space. This project consumed nearly all of Sorolla’s time from 1913 to 1919. At the end, he was exhausted and the year after the paintings were completed, the artist suffered a catastrophic stroke. Paralyzed and unable to paint, Sorolla died in 1923. Shortly after, his family donated his Madrid house and artworks to the Spanish state. The house opened as Museo Sorolla in 1932.

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Return from Fishing (La vuelta de la pesca)
Joaquín Sorolla
ca. 1894
Oil on canvas, 8.7 x 13.2 ft. l 265 x 403.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
The French government purchased this painting after it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1895.
Sad Inheritance (Triste herencia)
Joaquín Sorolla
Oil on canvas, 6.9 × 9.3 ft. l 210 × 285 cm. Private collection, Madrid, Spain
Awarded Grand Prize at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and a medal of honor at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts, Madrid in 1901, this work was inspired by an occasion when the artist witnessed disabled children from an orphanage bathing in the sea.
Portrait of William Howard Taft
Joaquín Sorolla
Oil on canvas, 59 x 31.4 in l 150 x 80 cm. Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, OH
This work was painted in the White House three months after Taft's inauguration as President. Taft was fluent in Spanish, so Sorolla was able to dispense with the translator he normally used when painting English-speaking subjects.
Louis Comfort Tiffany
Joaquín Sorolla
Oil on canvas, 4.9 x 7.4 ft. l 150.5 x 225.5 cm. Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY
Painted during Sorolla's second visit to the United States, this work depicts artist and designer Tiffany painting in his garden on Long Island. Sorolla preferred to paint portraits outdoors whenever possible.
LEFT: Clotilde in Grey Dress (Clotilde con traje gris); RIGHT: María at La Granja
Joaquín Sorolla
L: 1900; R: 1907
BOTH: Oil on canvas. LEFT: 70.3 x 36.6 in. l 178.5 x 93 cm. Museo Sorolla, Madrid, Spain. RIGHT: 67.1 x 33.5 in. l 170.5 x 85.1 cm. San Diego Museum of Art, CA
Clotilde was Sorolla's wife and María his daughter. The pairing of these portraits demonstrates the artist's shift from indoor to outdoor portraiture. Though the portrait of Clotilde demonstrates Sorolla's sensitivity to light effects, the painting of María shows his passion for capturing sunlight.
Beach of Valencia (Playa de Valencia)
Joaquín Sorolla
Oil on canvas, 24 1/2 x 26 in. l 62 x 66 cm. Karen W. Davidson Collection
This work is part of the "Spanish Light" exhibition at the Meadows Museum commemorating the centenary of Sorolla's death. The exhibition continues until January 7, 2024.
The White Boat, Jávea
Joaquín Sorolla
Oil on canvas, 41.3 x 59.1 in. l 105 x 150 cm. Private Collection, United States
Sorolla said "Every effect is so transient, it must be rapidly painted." In this work, the interaction of light and color with seawater is as much the subject of the work as the boat and the boys.
Running Along the Beach
Joaquín Sorolla
Oil on canvas, 35.4 x 65.5 in. l 90 x 166.5 cm. Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias, Oviedo, Spain
Children playing on the beach was one of Sorolla's favorite themes. The light caught in the white and pink girls' dresses echoes the foam on the cresting waves while the nude boy's color mimics the sandy shore.
Time for a Bathe, Valencia (La Hora del Baño, Valencia)
Joaquín Sorolla
Oil on canvas, 59.3 x 59.1 in. l 150.5 x 150 cm. Museo Sorolla, Madrid, Spain
Sorolla's love of the sea originated with his hometown, Valencia on the Mediterranean coast of Spain.
The Guitarists, Valencian Customs
Joaquín Sorolla
Oil on board, 13.4 x 19.5 in. l 34 x 49.5 cm. Museo Sorolla, Madrid, Spain
This small 19th century painting shows that even early in career, Sorolla was interested in capturing the colorful traditions of Spain.
Valencia, Vision of Spain
Joaquín Sorolla
Oil on canvas, 11.5 ft x 118.5 in l 351 x 301 cm. Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY
Sorolla was commissioned by the Hispanic Society of America to create a mural series focusing on the different provinces of Spain. The project took him 6 years. This work depicts the artist's home region.
Ayamonte, Vision of Spain
Joaquín Sorolla
Oil on canvas, 11.4 x 15.9 ft. l 349 x 485 cm. Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY
Another of the works from the mural commission depicts Ayamonte, a community in the southwest corner of Spain. Like the earlier "Return from Fishing," Sorolla focuses on the work of fisherman, in this case, the tuna catch.