by Roderick Conway Morris

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Fundacion Museo Sorolla
Pool in the Alcazar at Seville, 1910

Master of Sunlight and Colour

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, ITALY 12 April 2011


Joaquín Sorolla's works appealed to a wide public during his lifetime, and he was prodigiously productive. In his 1906 Paris show he exhibited 497 works; in Berlin the following year, 280; and in 1909 in New York, 356.

On the last occasion, 'the Spanish painter of sunlight and color,' as The New York Times described him, attracted 169,000 visitors in just over a month, despite long lines and icy February weather. By the time he departed for home he had sold 195 of his pictures and done portraits of President William Howard Taft and several other leading American personalities of the day.

Sorolla's reputation rested primarily on his grand canvases of romantic subjects, such as the fishermen of his native Valencia, and other popular narrative scenes. These themes reached an epic climax in his Vision of Spain, a cycle of canvases of the regions of his homeland for the Hispanic Society of America in New York. The 14 panels, which are about 70 meters long, or nearly 230 feet, took up a large part of his time between 1912 and 1919.

But during these times of block-buster exhibitions and celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, Sorolla also pursued another more meditative, intimate form of painting, revolving around courtyards and gardens, executed as much for his own satisfaction as for public consumption.

This fascinating repertoire, much of which remains at the Sorolla Museum in Madrid, the artist's studio-home left to the state by his widow, and in other private collections is now the subject of 'Sorolla: Gardens of Light,' at the Palazzo dei Diamanti. Curated by Thomàs Llorens, Blanca Pons-Sorolla, María López-Fernández and Boye Llorens, the exhibition will travel to Granada and Madrid.

Sorolla was born in Valencia in 1865, orphaned at 2 and taken in by an aunt and her locksmith husband. Happily, his artistic gifts were recognized and encouraged at an early age. A local photographer, Antonio García Pérez, gave him work as a lighting assistant, an experience that was to inform Sorolla's later skills in handling light and constructing his compositions.

Scholarships won through early prize-winning pictures enabled him to study in Rome and Paris, where he encountered some of the other leading painters of the day, including John Singer Sargent, who became a life-long friend. In 1888 he married García Pérez's daughter Clotilde, his model, life-long muse and mother of his three children, and moved to Madrid to further his career.

The artist made his first visit to Andalusia in 1902, where his attention was above all drawn by the majestic snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, which he came back to on a number of occasions and to which a room early on in the show is devoted. But his appreciation of the region's more contained garden spaces also grew.

Sorolla's dislike of working in a studio led him to combine genres by executing portraits outdoors. A key work in this evolution of his style is of his eldest daughter: 'Maria Dressed as a Valencian Peasant,' which appears in the first room of the exhibition. This boldly colorful study of 1906 was bought by the artist's friend Pedro Gil, who described it as 'a sensation of light.'

Summers spent in La Granja de San Ildefonso near Madrid and access to the Royal Gardens there encouraged Sorolla to paint other scenes of his family and friends' children in these tranquil, sun-dappled settings, with their gravel paths and shimmering ponds. Sorolla also took to painting vignettes of the gardens without figures. One of the earliest of these, 'The Gardens of the Royal Palace of La Granja,' is displayed with other en plein air pictures of his family from this period.

Commissions for royal portraits, also set against the backdrop of gardens, left the artist with time on his hands, especially when painting the queen in the Alcázar Gardens in Seville in 1908. She was willing to sit for him only for limited periods, and during his free moments Sorolla extended his range of garden scenes.

At first the artist found the Islamic palace architecture of Andalusia, almost too austere for his tastes. In a letter to his wife Clotilde in 1908 from Seville he wrote, 'So much marble, so many patios,' and from Granada in the following year he observed it 'was not a place of gardens, those of the Alhambra are like melancholy little enclosures, almost like those of convents.'

But the hushed silences of these hidden spaces, disturbed only by the murmuring of running water and the trickle of fountains, began to cast a spell over him and he returned to them over and over again, striving to capture their essence.

Most of these intensely realized pictures, which form the core of the exhibition, were made at a single sitting. If Sorolla could not finish in a single day, he would wait for a moment when the weather and light conditions were the same and, if this proved impossible, he would leave the canvas unfinished.

Over time these pictures became more and more distilled, their restricted palate and seeming simplicity creating an almost dreamlike vibrancy, exemplified by a series of canvases here from 1917 to 1918.

Sorolla's visits to Granada and Seville in 1918 also produced some extraordinary images, also on show here, of more verdant garden corners, exploding with orange and plum-colored blossoms and cascades of white and pink roses.

The artist's commercial success gave him the resources to pursue an ambitious project to build his own house in Madrid and surround it with gardens of his own design. In 1911 Sorolla signed a contract with the Hispanic scholar and philanthropist Archer Milton Huntington for the Vision of Spain canvases for the Hispanic Society of America and additionally 38 portraits of distinguished Spaniards of the era. At the end of the same year he and his family moved into the new studio-residence, which was to become his enduring monument.

The layout of the gardens, with their secluded courtyards, fountains and ponds, was strongly influenced by those he had studied in Andalusia, and he imported stonework, tiles, trees and plants from the region to adorn them. As the gardens matured, they became increasingly a subject of his paintings, a delightful series of these works, along with portraits of family and friends depicted in various parts of them, fill the last two rooms of the exhibition.

But the artist's constant journeys around Spain to research and execute the Vision cycle for Huntington and the sheer effort of painting such colossal canvases were beginning to undermine his health. He completed the last of these at Ayamonte on the Atlantic coast of Spain at the end of June 1919.

The idyllic existence Sorolla had long envisaged in the house and gardens he had created in Madrid was to be sadly short lived. On June 20, 1920, while painting a portrait in the gardens, he suffered a devastating stroke. He died in 1923.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023