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Sorolla, the Spanish Storyteller

"When an artist begins to count strokes instead of regarding nature he is lost. This preoccupation with technique, at the expense of truth and sincerity, is the principal fault I find in much of the work of modern painters."
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida - Self Portrait - Google Art Project
Self Portrait, 1904

Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida was born on February 27, 1863 in Valencia, on the east coast of Spain. Known for various subject matter including landscapes, portraiture, and social themes, the key recurring themes in his body of work would be the ocean, sunlight, and children. Few artists have observed sunlight and innocence in quite the way Sorolla has, with his juicy brushwork and mastery of color blending. Sorolla's use of color in particular, is inspirational in how he creates mood and defines his subject by color. In the following examples we'll explore this motif in his work.

In his Self Portrait above, Sorolla depicts himself with stern honesty. Note the subtle shades of greys, greens and warm colors of his jacket, and the cool shadows underneath the paintings on the wall. He contrasts this with warm, empty paintings behind him, as if to convey the passion of his vision without the distraction of fuzzy details. The use of space is also interesting here, in that Sorolla appears to be in a museum gallery instead of a studio. Sorolla seems to convey the idea that this is not only a self-portrait, but that we are looking at him through the viewpoint of a painting itself that he is looking at. A possible nod to Velázquez? At any rate, his expression is one of an artist with particular self-criticism and unflinching authenticity. He even crops out the view of his hands painting and the palette which he works on, to heighten this judgment of himself. An artist of deep humility and talent.

Joaquín Sorolla - Comida en la barca - Google Art Project
Comida en la barca, 1898

I love the feeling of this composition, the sense of being inside this tight space with this fisherman's family. Thin shadows that contrast with the bright highlight of the ship's bow. Look at how the beam running across the top changes hue from warm inside to a striking green when the sunlight strikes it, tied up with yellow rope. The canvas of the sail glows warmly on top from the sunlight trying to shine through it. Sorolla's figures here are natural and in their element, completely unaware of his presence, yet there is a distinct design to the arrangement of the figures. Like many Old Masters before him, Sorolla alternates the direction of the old man and young boy, while diagonally the men with hats alternate in what they are holding: the nearest figure a pail, the other his grandson. The lone figure eating is a asymmetrical and in deeper shadow, leading the eye toward the bow.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida - Mother - Google Art Project
Mother, 1895

I love the stark simplicity of this painting. A monochromatic color scheme is always a risky thing in a painting, and the use of white is normally a high-key element, but here Sorolla's genius is in exploring all that the color white is capable of. The range of tones here is truly striking yet so subtle, from cool to warm, bright to dull...the wall behind her is a muted grey infused with cool undertones. This must have been unusually restrictive for Sorolla in that he typically paints skin-kissed flesh of youth and women outdoors but here, the mother and child together are swathed under the sheets of this bed. Comfort is the meaning of this work. I like how Sorolla completely resists the use of sentimentality. Fabric itself defines the context of what is happening, as a metaphor of love, and it is quite simply, brilliant.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida - Aún dicen que el pescado es caro
Aún dicen que el pescado es caro!, 1894

Translated as And They Still Say Fish is Expensive!, Sorolla depicts an injured young boy tending to by two fishermen. Apparently the medal worn around the young boy's neck is meant to bring luck against misfortune at sea, a sarcastic element Sorolla uses here for social commentary toward the plight of maritime fishermen in Spain at that time. Spain's economic power grew from its maritime empire and the exploration of the Americas, yet here the very people who helm the boats and live off the ocean and its occasionally dangerous environment are not given the recognition they deserve. Visually, Sorolla describes the scene with incredible brushwork, creating textures of background elements that contrast with the flesh of the young boy. Sorolla leaves much of the underpainting visible, adding a rustic, earthiness that is almost tangible. The barrel behind them is painted suggestively, with scumbled brushstrokes that thin out toward the edge of the back curve, and yet it adds so much visually to the painting that it would not be the same without it. This scumbling is present everywhere, even in the greys of the boy's flesh. On the far left the fish on the floor are painted thickly in vibrant hues, stressing its very social and biological importance. This is a painter's painting, and much can be learned from it.

Joaquín Sorolla - Kissing the Relic - Google Art Project
Kissing the Relic, 1893

A biting commentary on religion and the masses, Sorolla depicts people lining up to kiss the holy relic while near the end of the line a young boy in white collects donations in a bowl. A riveting display of textures once again, from the shiny tiled floor to the multi-patterned fabrics of the people in line, Sorolla clearly outdoes himself here. The sense of presence is strong here also, as if we are in the room with them watching this scene unfold. Sorolla pays keen attention to detail and yet at the same time simplifies them under his loose brush. Look at the door behind the priest has a worn, grey tone to it with a prominent highlight raking across it...nothing escapes Sorolla's eye.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida - El pescador
El pescador, 1904

I like the diagonal composition of this young boy and his physical energy.The way Sorolla paints the ocean is absolutely mesmerizing, and here he contrasts it with the cool cast reflections of cool tones on the boy's chest. Look at the colors he uses in the fish the boy is carrying in the basket. The way that shadow across his forearm changes from dark to blue is magical.

El botijo-Sorolla
The drinking jug, 1904

Beautiful brushstrokes here define the characters and the clothing. A young mother feeds water to her barefoot child, and yet our eyes are drawn to what she is wearing. Sorolla effortlessly combines subtle colored greys while showing parts of the underpainting to emphasize the rustic qualities once again. There is no sentimentality here at all, instead revealing a fresh take on a familiar theme we can all relate to. I like how the the doorway behind them has a cool, almost purple tone to it.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida - La hora del baño
La hora del baño, 1904

Titled Bathtime in english, this absolutely gorgeous view of the ocean, with young children bathing innocently, reveals Sorolla's deep love of the sea and his nurturing culture. Look at how the young mother waits for the children with arms wide open holding a large white towel fluttering in the wind. Squint hard and those superb highlights in the water glisten radiantly against that deep blue water. For Sorolla, painting is not just about social commentary or things that are attractive to the public, but painting is about what is deeply personal to us as artists and as human beings. Moments like this are fleeing, and beautiful.

Joaquín Sorolla - Buscando Mariscos, Playa de Valencia
Buscando Mariscos, Playa de Valencia 1907

Looking for Seafood on Valencia Beach is a similar stroke of genius to the one above, save for the element of a solitary figure this time. Sorolla dominates the palette with purple and pink tones, and the young girl's dress is simply stated to bring the focus around her. Squint again, and that coastline gleams brilliantly. That shadow of the girl in the wet sand is one of the most peculiar and amazing I've ever seen. The curiosity of children is a powerful subject, and here Sorolla's love of children is seamlessly balanced with his profound respect and love of nature. Sorolla seems to have a distaste for the Classical pose, and instead discovers his figures doing something important to them, which was important to Sorolla also.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida - The Little Sailing Boat - Google Art Project
The Little Sailing Boat, 1909

Undulating brushwork of water that leads our eye casually to the young boy playing with his toy sailboat. Here Sorolla uses nudity as a state of mind, the pure innocence and honesty of being a child. The colors themselves are telling the story and creating the mood. The moment itself is the story. And Sorolla is telling us to discover that moment within ourselves. In nature.


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