Studying Past Masters: Sorolla

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida

One of my favorite discoveries has been Joaquin Sorolla. Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida was born on February 27, 1863, in Valencia, Spain.  Both parents died in 1865 from possible cholera. Their maternal aunt and uncle then raised the two children.

Receiving his initial art instruction at the age of fourteen in his hometown, he traveled to Madrid at age 18, where he studied the Master paintings at the Museo del Prada. After his military service and at the age of 22, he received a grant which enabled four years of study in Rome, Italy. During this time, Sorolla’s study afforded him a trip to Paris in 1885, which gave him his first exposure to the influence of modern painting.

He achieved his first striking success with Another Marguerite (1892), which was awarded a gold medal at the National Exhibition in Madrid, then first prize at the Chicago International Exhibition.  Sorolla’s career reached a turning point with the painting and exhibition of Sad Inheritance (1899), an extremely large canvas.  The subject was a depiction of disabled children bathing in the sea in Valencia under the supervision of a monk. The polio epidemic that struck some years earlier in the land of Valencia is presented, possibly for the first time in the history of painting, through the image of the two affected children.The portrayal earned Sorolla his greatest official recognition, the Grand Prix and a medal of honor at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900 and the Medal of Honor at the National Exhibition in Madrid in 1901.

Formal portraiture was not Sorolla’s genre preference; however, it was profitable for him.  At the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, I enjoyed seeing a formal portrait of Taft painted by Sorolla.  While amazing and rendered flawlessly, it surprised me to know that it was a Sorolla.   I would never have guessed this, as the style was different from what I attribute to Sorolla. Nevertheless, the appearance of sunlight roused Sorolla’s interest, and it was outdoors where he found his ideal portrait settings.  These paintings are the ones that come to mind when I think of Sorolla.

After his death, Sorolla’s widow left many of his paintings to the Spanish public. However, his legacy is preserved as these paintings eventually formed the collection known as the Museo Sorolla, formerly the artist’s house in Madrid. The museum opened in 1932. In addition, Sorolla’s work is represented in museums throughout Spain, Europe, and America.  For example, in 1933, J. Paul Getty purchased ten Impressionist beach scenes done by Sorolla, several of which are housed in the J. Paul Getty Museum.  In 2007, many of Sorolla’s work was exhibited at the Petit Palais in Paris, alongside the work of John Singer Sargent.

A recent exhibition, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” featuring California impressionists, also included Sorolla’s work.  I also enjoyed seeing one of Sorolla’s beach scene paintings at the Met in New York City.  Sorolla’s Sea Idyll 1908 shows his playful capturing of light as two adolescents lay at the water’s edge on the beach.

Examine how he caught the wetness on their bodies, the innocence as they lay talking and the water swirls around them.  The play of light on the bodies and water is exceptional.  His color relationships: blue-grays complementing the red-orange tinge of the flesh and the purple-grays balancing the yellow touches of sunlight keep the eye pleased and engaged.  Check out the warmth in the yellow/purple and greenish-brown grays of the girl’s shadow.   The strength of this painting is not lost if you remove its color.

Sorolla-Sea-Idyll-1908 in black and white

Observe the closeness in value this painting has and the wonderfully designed shapes of each.  From this, you can see how Sorolla contrasts these shapes to move you subtly through his artwork.  The lightest value leads you into the painting to the young girl.  Her gaze at the young boy leads you further into the artwork (as you move away from his lightest light to a darker value). The swirls of water and pattern of color draw your interest, swirling your eyes around the figures. Finally, you investigate the shadows of their bodies on the beach and the bodies of the two figures themselves. 

Sorolla’s The Beach at Biarritz

Another favorite of mine, this exquisite painting of a woman in the countryside reading in the breeze, shows how Sorolla uses value, color, and shape design to engage the viewer into the artwork. Look at the abstractions he accomplishes with the division of space. Again notice his closeness of value, making the central figure part of the same values as the waves in the background.  The touch of light on her left shoulder creates the crucial separation, believing she is not a part of the waves.  One little dab of paint at a value lighter provides a “doorway” to the figure or from the figure to the waves. Notice how Sorolla utilizes various edges, especially the soft edges.  

A final comparison of Sorolla’s exceptional capturing of light and shadow follows.       

Sorolla’s A Rooftop with Flowers-1906

Again minimal values are used and placed, so that movement through the painting occurs.  Examine the front left of the picture.  Within the same value, Sorolla provides a feeling of light on the bench that moves to the ground shadow through color.  As we move back into the painting, following along the bench, the colors cool within the same value taking us further into the shadow. Finally, our eye moves to the right back into the light.  Entry points into this painting are many–as with the ones above. Sorolla’s planning of his compositions provides the viewer with those many entry points.  Just as you think you will exit the painting on the right, where the darkest dark takes you almost out of the picture, he places a white wall angled back into the picture.  A thwarted escape as you examine more plants in sunlight leads you back to the center of the painting.

Sorolla’s strength of composition, just like Singer Sargent’s, beckons anyone who wants to study their accomplishments. Sorolla’s use of color and value is yet another example of how simple yet complex you can make your paintings by controlling them. Who said creation doesn’t require thought? The thought takes you to the zone where our muse lives as we create and manage the creative process.


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