4 months ago

Artistic License: Sorolla, Spanish Master of Light


Dr Aoife Brady is Curator of Italian and Spanish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland. With Dr Brendan Rooney, Head Curator, National Gallery of Ireland, she is co-curator of the exhibition “Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light“, which opens on Saturday August 10. Here Dr Brady tells us more about the exhibition.

Tipos de Lagartera o Novia Lagarterana, 1912 © Museo Sorolla

Sorolla apparently hated darkness and we can feel the serotonin looking at the artworks. Tell us about the artist.

Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla was born in Valencia in 1863. He is famed for his sun-drenched depictions of the life, leisure, landscapes and traditions of Spain, often painted outdoors and on a monumental scale. Sorolla could rapidly capture snapshot moments in time with mastery and ease – he once told his wife Clotilde in a letter that he “could not paint at all” if he had to paint slowly. His renowned skill in painting the effects of the intense Spanish sunlight led French Impressionist painter Claude Monet to describe him as “the master of light.” Though perhaps an unfamiliar name to some of us, Sorolla is considered a national treasure in Spain, and ranked amongst the likes of Velázquez and Goya as one of the country’s most beloved artists.

Jardín de la Casa Sorolla, 1920 © Museo Sorolla

As many of us travel to Spain for our holidays – where are the landscapes Sorolla depicts in this exhibition?

Sorolla made it his mission to paint Spanish life in all its variety, and travelled the length and breadth of Spain – for both work and for pleasure – painting the different regions. He painted dazzling seascapes on the beaches of his native Valencia; from the towering cliffs of Ibiza; while watching the rolling waves of San Sebastián; and while enjoying the spectacular azures of the Costa Blanca. Sorolla created views from the palaces of Seville and Granada, the characteristic landscapes of Salamanca and Toledo, and the Roncal Valley at the foot of the Pyrenees. He painted further afield, too – creating a series of views of the French coast while on family holidays in the fashionable resort of Biarritz. A homebody at heart, he also loved to paint the garden of his family home in Madrid.

La bata rosa, 1916 © Museo Sorolla

What about the portraits – are they family, friends or special commissions?

All of the above – we have a large number of family portraits in the exhibition, each of which tells its own story about the characters in the Sorolla household. The artist was truly a family man, who missed his wife and children so much when he travelled that he wrote to them daily – sometimes twice a day – and when they were together, he painted them regularly. He also painted many of his friends, often writers or artists – in our exhibition, we have a portrait of Ralph Clarkson, a fellow painter who Sorolla became friends with when exhibiting his work in Chicago in 1911. Sorolla also gained reputation as a high-society portraitist in the early years of the 1900s, and painted many illustrious figures over the course of his career, including the King and Queen of Spain, and the American President, William Howard Taft.

Tower of the Seven Points, Alhambra, 1910 © Fundación Museo Sorolla

Do you have any favourites in the exhibition?

My favourite paintings are a series of four, life-size studies for Sorolla’s last big commission, entitled the “Vision of Spain”. In 1911, Sorolla signed a contract with American philanthropist and millionaire Archer Milton Huntington, to decorate the library of the Hispanic Society of America, New York, with a panorama of monumental canvases depicting the traditional landscapes and characters of the Spanish regions. In preparation for the final paintings, Sorolla travelled for eight years in search of these traditional populations, and painted the large-scale studies outdoors as he encountered people that he deemed appropriate models. The resulting studies are quite fascinating, depicting a variety of characters in elaborate Spanish dress. Sometimes he couldn’t find the ‘authentic’ locals that he was looking for – so he purchased traditional costumes and hired people to model for him. Some of the people appear as betrothed couples and appear decisively awkward in Sorolla’s paintings, and one wonders if they were perfect strangers before being dressed up and asked to pose by the artist!

Madre, 1900 © Museo Sorolla

What are some of Sorolla’s legacies as an artist?

Sorolla’s paintings of seaside life and his keen observation had a lasting impact on many artists of subsequent generations, including the young Pablo Picasso. Beyond that, Sorolla’s beloved wife Clotilde bequeathed the family house in Madrid and its contents – including her personal collection of paintings by her husband – to the Spanish State after his death. The house is now the Museo Sorolla, a beautiful gem of a museum dedicated to the artist in the heart of Madrid, where the artist’s paintings are hung and tranquil gardens are preserved in their original state, and continue to inspire visitors today.

Sewing the Sail, 1896 © Photo Archive – Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia

Need to Know: “Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light” is at the National Gallery of Ireland from August 10 to November 3. The exhibition is organised by the National Gallery London and the National Gallery of Ireland, in collaboration with Museo Sorolla. Tickets are from €5; www.nationalgallery.ie.

Penny McCormick

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