Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, London.
Until 7th July
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863- 1923) is one of my favourite artists of all times. Not often the object of solo exhibitions outside Spain, this show put together by The National Gallery, in association with The National Gallery Ireland and the Museo Sorolla, Madrid, is the first of its kind in the UK since 1908, when Sorolla himself mounted an exhibition at London’s Grafton Galleries, where he was promoted as The World’s Greatest Living Painter.
A rich diversity of works by Sorolla have been masterfully arranged across 7 rooms by curator Christopher Riopelle, with the assistance of Consultant Curator Blanca Pons, from the Museo Sorolla. Portraits, scenes of Spanish life, landscapes, garden views and of course, the beach scenes for which he is best known are all part of this fascinating show, that comprises 60 works spanning the artist’s career, including important masterpieces on loan from public and private collections.
His portraits and his sun-drenched depiction of Spain sealed his fame as an artist, after earning international recognition for major works tackling social subjects – The Return from Fishing (1894, Paris. Musée d’Orsay), Sewing the Sail (1896, Venice. Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna di Ca’Pesaro), and Sad Inheritance! (1899, Valencia, Colección Fundación Bancaja), which was kept in the Church of the Ascension in New York’s Fifth Avenue until 1981.
A third of the paintings in this exhibition come from private collections, and another third has been generously lent by the Museo Sorolla, which occupies the house and garden Sorolla designed and built for his family in Madrid. The first room focuses on Sorolla’s portraits of his wife Clotilde, his daughters María and Elena, and his son Joaquín. Clotilde was the daughter of his first patron, and his favourite model, appearing to barely age over the decades. The second room evolves around the work of the artist in the 1890s, when Spain experienced serious social unrest and the collapse of its overseas empire. This is the time when Sorolla became famous for his monumental canvases, concerned with the realities of Spanish life. The best example is his great success, Another Marguerite! (1892, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Washington University St. Louis), which depicted a woman arrested for murdering her child, and which set off his international career.
After 1900, Sorolla moved mostly onto portraits, following Spanish Masters like Velázquez and Goya, even adopting their distinctive palette of blacks, greys and creams. The third room in this exhibition is devoted to this period of his career. The psychological penetration of Velázquez and Goya are reflected in Sorolla’s Portrait of the American artist Ralph Clarkson (1911, Oregon Public Library and Gallery), whilst his Reclining Female Nude (1902, Private collection) plays homage to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (1651, the National Gallery).
Room four celebrates Sorolla’s love of sunlight and the sea and the substantial body of work he created after 1900 inspired by scenes in the beaches of Valencia and Jávea. These works were very successful, particularly among US collectors. Nobody has ever painted Mediterranean light as magically as Sorolla. When in front of his paintings, I can almost smell the sea and feel the sun warming my skin. The fifth room is devoted to Sorolla’s Vision of Spain, commissioned by the Hispanic Society, which documents the country’s regional dress, occupations and traditions. The exhibition includes four large scale preparatory studies (1912, Museo Sorolla, Madrid) which show the intensity with which the artist engaged in Spanish Folk tradition.
The sixth room focuses on the artist’s landscapes and gardens. From the barren mountains of Sierra Nevada to the medieval towers of Burgos. Sorolla’s ability to communicate a particular atmosphere shines through in these works. His views of the gardens of the Alcázar in Seville and the Alhambra in Granada are stunning. The final room highlight’s Sorolla’s fascination with depicting his family in large canvases painted outdoors, such as Strolling along the Seashore (1909, Fundación Museo Sorolla, Madrid), and The Siesta (1911, Museo Sorolla, Madrid), with its brilliant fluorescent greens and his bold, almost abstract strokes.
Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, says: “Between Goya and Picasso, Sorolla was Spain’s most celebrated painter. He painted tough social themes but became famous for his sun drenched beach scenes and luxuriant gardens. No one before or since has painted Mediterranean sunlight like Sorolla.”