Guillermo, one of our Spanish De Laszlo scholars gave a wonderful lecture on Sorolla. He included nearly 100 images, of which I selected a few.
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida was born in Valencia on the 27 of February 1863. Son of a cloth merchant, he lived for the first two years of his life in a privileged part of Valencia, in the very heart of the city. When his parents passed away (possibly from cholera) he and his sister moved to live with their uncle Pepe and aunt Isabel, in a less comfortable economic situation. His uncle was a locksmith dedicated primarily to making iron fittings for boats. At school, Sorolla did not show great gifts as a student. However, his vocation and talent for the arts were obvious. In view of the fact that the young Sorolla wasn’t getting much out of school, his uncle decided to make the boy an apprentice of his trade. He also helped him in his true vocation by sending him to the Escuela de Artesanos for drawing classes in the evening. Sorolla worked so hard that he won all the prizes in his first year.
He entered the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Valencia in 1878 (age 15) with the aid of the Marques de Villagracia and his son, who became his first benefactors. From this moment onwards Sorolla would dedicate himself completely to becoming a painter.
During this first year, he became a close friend of Tono Garcia, son of Antonio Garcia, a well-known Valencian photographer. Tono showed his father a still life made by his friend Chimo Sorolla. He was surprised by the quality, considering that the painter was only 15 years old. Knowing the financial difficulties of Sorolla’s uncle, Antonio Garcia decided to buy Sorolla’s painting and soon became his patron and second father. He paid for his studies in return for a job in the photography laboratory retouching and illuminating photographs and was also allowed to use the painting studio at his house. Sorolla will soon marry his daughter Clotilde.
After having participated in a couple of local exhibitions and being awarded a number of prizes, in 1881 Sorolla entered a competition on a national scale, The Exposicion Nacional de Bellas Artes, which represented a major move for him. At that time, these type of exhibitions were very closely related to historical paintings. One of the paintings he presented was “Seascape. Ships in the Port”. All his paintings went unnoticed.
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Seascape, Ships in the Port, 1881, Oil on canvas, 45 x 76 cm, Private Collection
Sorolla’s journey to Madrid brought him into contact with his true Masters: Velazquez, Goya, and Ribera. He went back a year later in 1882 and spent a long time making master copies. His paintings were deeply influenced by these artists.
In 1884 Sorolla again took part in the Exposicion Nacional de Bellas Artes, but this time he conformed to the trend of the period and presented a history painting “The second of May 1808” (battle with Napoleon army in Madrid). This time he won a second-class medal. The difference in this painting is that he was painting outdoors and not in a studio.
Soon after his return to Valencia, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Academia de Espana en Roma. The final exercise to obtaining the grant consisted of developing the theme of “El Palleter” declaring war on Napoleon. This was also painted outdoors. We can already see at this early stage in his career a preference for painting outside the studio. By now his relationship with Clotilde, his future wife, was progressing.
In 1885 at the age of 22, he left for Rome where he continued with his studies. There he became friends with Pedro Gil, a painter, and an art enthusiast. Their friendship lasted for the rest of their lives. They went on a visit to Paris together where Sorolla opened his eyes for the first time to the new movement of modern painting.
He returned to Italy and spent the rest of the year preparing his first shipment of works to Diputacion de Valencia. The opinion of his works was totally negative, accusing him of preparing sketches rather than academic paintings (three studies of head). At the end of the year, he submitted further works which this time was accepted.
In 1888 Sorolla went back to Valencia to marry Clotilde. They spent a few days in Rome and then settled in Assisi where he dedicated himself to his painting and searched for greater accuracy in his drafting, “Father Jofre protecting a madman”. During this time Sorolla had to supplement the income from the grant by selling some paintings and adjusting them to the current trends. “The painter’s studio” is an example.
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Father Jofré protecting a madman 1887, Oil on canvas, 154 x 205 cm, Palau de la Generalitat, Valencia
When his formal education was completed in 1890 he went back to Madrid, where he thought it would be easier for him to develop his career as a painter. During his first years (1890 – 1895) in Madrid, he formed a family. Maria was his firstborn, then came Joaquin followed by Elena.
At this time Sorolla was painting pictures with a narrative content as if telling a story. However, this social realism will not be of his interest for much longer. In 1892 he presented “A happy day” and “Another Marguerite” to the Exposicion Internacional de Bellas Artes where he won a first place medal for “Another Marguerite”.
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Another Margarita, 1892, Oil on canvas, 200 x 130 cm, Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis
In 1894, from the point of view of his artistic development, Sorolla went through one of the most crucial years of his career as a painter. He realised what type of art he was looking for as he was painting “The return from fishing”. He is not telling a story of any type, he is just true to what he sees and how he sees it. Scenes mainly painted outside under strong light with white as a predominant colour.
The Marques de Lozoya wrote:
There is a moment in every artist’s career which usually follows many years of strenuous effort, in which experiences are accumulated in an intuition of marvelous clarity; the artist’s vision becomes precise and clear; the paths that lead to success are firmly perceived and easily and happily pursued, without any effort at all… For Sorolla, this moment arrived with his first beach scenes: La Vuelta de la Pesca and Pescadores Valencianos. These paintings do not resemble any of those he had painted before and in all of them, we find the vigour of the best of Spanish painting. From this point onwards subject matter is of no importance… Sorolla sees only his personal interpretation of light, shadows, and the soft and rich penumbra interrupted by reflections of the sun through foliage and fabrics.
In 1900 Sorolla took part in the Universal Exhibition of Paris where he gained international recognition and met other painters such as Sargent and Zorn. From 1904 to 1908 Sorolla had reached a maturity as an artist and was consistent with his work.
In 1909 he traveled to America to take part in an exhibition at the Hispanic Society in New York. The exhibition was a complete success and he sold nearly 150 works. He returned to Valencia where he painted at the beaches of Javea as well as northern Spain and southern France. Focusing mainly on light and colour, rather than form and detail.
Sorolla also painted portraits throughout his career. Although he didn’t like being called a portrait artist he was indeed one of the most popular ones at that time.
In 1911 he was commissioned by the Hispanic Society in New York to prepare a number of decorative paintings showing the history of Spain and Portugal. This was Sorolla’s largest commission ever. The paintings were created to arrange together as a large mural of 70m wide and 4m high. Sorolla spent most of his time during the next years between 1911 and 1919 working on this commission. He traveled around Spain capturing the different identities of the regions in a rather picturesque way. Yet, he managed to paint some seascapes and beach paintings as he always loved.
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Mending the Sail, 1896, Oil on canvas, 302 x 220 cm, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Ca Pesaro, Venice
In 1920 soon after he finished his commission with the Hispanic Society, he had a stroke that brought his paintings to a halt until his death 3 years later. He died in 1923 at the age of 63 after dedicating his entire life to painting.
Interview to Sorolla in 1913:
- Maestro: What would you like to be? What would you like to have been?
- Me? A painter!… Nothing but a painter!…
- It’s just that, sometimes when great masters achieve fame and glory, they feel a certain nostalgia for something they haven’t got.
- No, not me… no, a painter!!… A painter!!… Nothing but a painter!… If you had been able to follow my life, step by step, at my side all the way, you would be convinced that I have never wanted to be, nor do I want to be, nor will I ever want to be anything but a painter. Right?
- Are there any painters in your family?
- Not one; when I was a small child they sent me to school and I began to paint monkeys… And I am still painting them! Of course! That’s my vocation! Right?
- Did you study for any particular profession?
- To be a painter. I tell you!… Instead of learning to read and write, I painted monkeys, and that’s the way I became a painter, who abandoned all other studies. I can tell you that even today it is very difficult for me to spell correctly! Right?… We painters would like to speak with colour… We also live the life of colour, line, expression.