Joaquín Sorolla

Joaquín Sorolla

Who was Joaquín Sorolla

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), was a Spanish painter and one of the best known representatives of the modernism art movement. Sorolla's preeminence among Spanish painters was such that, at the beginning of World War I, he was appointed Director of Fine Arts for the Spanish Army. He is best remembered for his colorful portrayals of life in his native city of Valencia. Sorolla was born on August 4, 1863 in Valencia, Spain to José Sorolla y Bastida and Concepción Bastida Alvarez. His grandfather, Francisco Xavier Sorolla y Gonzalez, had been a well-known painter in Madrid who moved to Valencia in 1836 to paint portraits. His father was an established photographer with a studio on Calle de Madera. Sorolla began his formal artistic studies in Madrid, where he took lessons from the famous painters Mariano Fortuny y Marsal and Ignacio Zuloaga , but soon decided to travel to Paris to seek a higher level of instruction. There he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts under Alexandre Cabanel and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes . Following his graduation in 1889, he returned to Spain and settled into an apartment in Madrid's "Costurero" neighborhood. Sorolla would live in that apartment for most of the rest of his life. He had his first professional exhibition at age 27 in Madrid in 1887, presenting a series of paintings inspired by the theme of death. These grim paintings brought him immediate recognition as a major new painter. His work attracted interest from Queen Maria Christina , who bought his painting "The Wave" ( La Ola ) (1888).

Sorolla's Early Life

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) was born into a well-to-do family in the seaside town of Valencia, Spain. His father, José Benito, was a rich shipbuilder and timber merchant. His mother, Clotilde, who died when Joaquín was only five years old, came from a wealthy family of landowners. Sorolla was a delicate child and suffered from poor health. When he was only three years old, his left leg became paralyzed and remained so for the rest of his life. His doctors gave up all hope for a cure and recommended that the leg be amputated. Sorolla's grandfather refused to accept this advice and provided the best care possible until his grandson's health improved. Sorolla's parents were both serious art collectors and had their own gallery in their home where they displayed their works. Joaquín was fascinated by these paintings and found himself drawn more and more to painting rather than to the sea trade business in which he had been expected to engage. When Sorolla was 15 years old, his parents decided it would be in his best interest to leave Spain and live for a time in Paris in order to study in one of its fine art academies there. Sorolla's early life, though it included poverty, was not unhappy. It was an artistic household, and he received encouragement from his father, who was a painter. He had attended the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, where he studied with Francisco Pradilla, a noted Spanish painter. He lived in Paris for ten years, returning to Spain in 1885. His paintings showed the influence of French Impressionism, which was just taking hold, but he remained true to his Spanish heritage. He hoped that the official Salón would accept his painting "La hilandera" (The Spinster), but it did not. The rejection stung him deeply. He painted some more pictures in the same style, but after 1886 he changed his style completely. The strongest influence on his artistic development was the time he spent in France, where he discovered the Impressionists. He became one of their most enthusiastic supporters and, when he returned to Spain in 1885, brought with him the techniques of Divisionism. Sorolla became a popular artist, but it was not until 1904 that he received any official recognition. Sorolla's paintings are characterized by an almost exaggerated impressionism. He used the most vivid colors, unconcerned with creating a precise representation of reality. His goal was instead to evoke feelings and memories in the viewer.

The Adventures of Joaquín Sorolla

In 1914 World War I started. In 1916, Spain decided to join the war on the side of the Allies (France and Britain). But there was a problem: Germany controlled part of France, and Spain couldn't get through to fight the Germans without going through it. Joaquín Sorolla volunteered to go to France with a group of other men from Valencia. They joined a French regiment, and they were put on trucks and sent right into German territory. The men from Valencia were the first Spanish soldiers to fight in World War I. Sorolla was too old for combat but he wanted to do his part in the war effort. So he spent his days painting and his nights producing pro-war posters and pamphlets. And then when the fighting started, he worked as a battlefield doctor. He was decorated for his bravery. They fought on the front line for two years until Spain finally made peace with Germany in 1918.* Then they all returned home, except for Joaquín Sorolla, who died of cancer soon after he got back to Spain in 1919.

The Art of Exaggeration during the Great Depression

During the Great Depression, the market for paintings in America dropped out. The rich had less money to spend on luxuries, and the poor couldn't spend anything at all. So painters were in trouble. The people who were most affected were the ones whose work was in between. They weren't starving; their work could be shown in art galleries, and sometimes enthusiastic collectors would buy it. But there was no sense of a rising market, like what you might see in Silicon Valley when a startup goes public or gets bought out for a lot of money. Sorolla was not that badly hit by this. His landscapes were always popular with tourists, and his darker pictures sold reasonably well too. But he saw other artists struggling, and he knew that his own success depended on continuing popularity among American tourists. Sorolla turned out to be one of the lucky ones. He was in his late fifties, and had not depended on selling paintings to make a living. He had an independent source of income, enough that he could take the floundering market in stride. His family was wealthy, and he had other investments. He did not depend on selling paintings for his survival. He didn't have to make too many changes in his life. He continued working at his usual pace, producing his usual kind of painting, but with fewer customers. He didn't go hungry, but neither did he live extravagantly.

Sorolla's struggle for nationality

At the age of ten, Sorolla's family moved from Valencia to Madrid, where he completed his schooling. In 1882 he enrolled at the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts; two years later he won a scholarship that allowed him to spend three years in Rome and Paris, studying under some of the best artists and instructors in Europe. His paintings are displayed in the Prado and other museums, and his home in Valencia is a museum as well. In the United States, I'd never heard of him until one day, when my wife and I were visiting friends from Spain. They took us to an exhibition of his work at a gallery on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Yet for all his fame, Sorolla was not a Spanish painter. He was born in Valencia, on the eastern coast of Spain, to a Catalonian father and a Valencian mother. But he lived most of his life in Italy, first in Rome and later in Genoa. And he was married to an Italian woman for more than thirty years. The reason I'd never heard of Sorolla until that day is that I am not Spanish; I'm American, and he wasn't famous here. But the reason my friends had brought us to the exhibition is that they think he should be famous here too. Before he died in 1923, Sorolla tried several times to get Spanish nationality but the Spanish state refused it every time.

Joaquín Sorolla's style

Sorolla's painting style was a strange combination of academic realism and impressionism. This gave his paintings a strange dreamy quality that was very popular during the early 1900s. He was also well known for his nudes. In Sorolla's time, there were two ways to paint, one from nature and one from the imagination. Artists who painted from nature were called realists. Artists who painted from their imaginations were called impressionists. In reality, it wasn't quite so cut-and-dried, but for the sake of argument let's go with this oversimplified distinction between two schools of thought. Sorolla had some experience with both styles. He had studied in Madrid at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, which was famous for its classical curriculum based on the study of human anatomy and perspective drawing. After graduation, he had spent time in Paris studying under Henri Gervex. Gervex was an accomplished painter whose work showed the influence of impressionism; this influence is apparent in Sorolla's earlier work.

Death of Joaquín Sorolla

On the morning of July 18, 1923, Joaquín Sorolla was on the beach at his home in Valencia, painting a portrait of his wife and daughter. He was about to begin painting a group portrait of himself and some friends. Suddenly, he clutched his chest and began to moan. His wife and friends helped him into their car and started for the hospital. But 35 minutes later, as they were crossing the Plaza de la Virgen, where Valencia's famous market was held on Sundays, Sorolla stopped breathing. "He had been talking with great animation," one of his friends recalled, "and had suddenly stopped as if some invisible hand had strangled him." Sorolla died that afternoon three days after his sixty-fifth birthday from a heart attack.

Oil painting reproduction of Joaquín Sorolla

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