Madrid Academy Of Art

The Technical Brilliance of Joaquín Sorolla’s Impressionistic Paintings

The Technical Brilliance of Joaquín Sorolla’s Impressionistic Paintings



Autorretrato (1909)

His full name is Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, but not many people recall his second surname when they think of Spain’s most influential impressionist painter.

Sorolla: Contemplating the Life and Inspirations of the Spanish Painter

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (18631923) was a Spanish Impressionist painter best known for his large paintings of seascapes and beach scenes, as well as his portraits. Born in Valencia, Spain, Sorolla studied at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid and began painting professionally as early as 1881.

He soon developed a modern style of painting characterized by bright, clear colors and a preference for naturalistic light. His works often featured bright sunlight lighting figures in the outdoors, and their often monumental size gave the viewer a feeling of being there.

In 1909, Sorolla held a very successful exhibition in Madrid, which gained him international recognition. He held numerous exhibitions in Spain and abroad, and his works were acquired by the Spanish royal family and major banks and business groups. He also travelled extensively, visiting France, Great Britain, Italy, Tunisia, Morocco, and Portugal.

His travels provided inspiration for his seascape and beach paintings, which were typically massive in scale and featured a great variety of sea life. Sorolla‘s body of work also includes a number of landscapes and genre paintings depicting everyday life in Spain. His works often feature children, a major source of inspiration for the artist. One of his most famous works is La Playa Valencia, a painting of a family on the beach in Valencia.

In 1923, he suffered a stroke while painting in his garden, and died a few months later. His last major project was to exhibit sixteen mural paintings he had been commissioned to paint for the Hispanic Society of America in New York. Both Sorolla and his works have received ongoing recognition and are considered to be among the most important figures in Spanish art.


Sorolla First years: early interest in art

He was born in Valencia into a humble family on February 27, 1863. His parents, Joaquín Sorolla Gascón and María Concepción Bastida Prat, ran a modest textile business until, it is said, they died victims of a cholera epidemic. Sorolla was two years old at the time. He and his sister Concha were taken in by their aunt Isabel -their mother’s sister- and their uncle. The latter was a locksmith by profession.


José Piqueras Guillén, which was his uncle’s name, tried to get Joaquín to follow in his footsteps in the world of locksmithing. It turned out to be a useless effort because, although he learned the profession, he was indifferent to it. In fact, he was always attracted to painting. Fortunately, he followed his instincts and began to find a way into the world of painting.


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida: An Exploration of his Early Work

At the same time that his uncle made an effort to introduce Sorolla to his occupation in order to secure him a job, the young Valencian attended the Secondary School of Valencia. There, although the subjects were varied, he showed a strong preference for those in which drawing and color played a leading role. And it was not just a simple attraction, but rather he demonstrated certain abilities in the area. It was for this reason that the director of the school himself recommended to his family that Sorolla should focus his future on Fine Arts; the best option to develop his artistic passion.

Following this advice, Joaquín Sorolla then began his artistic training. He did so at the School of Artisans and under the orders of the sculptor Cayetano Capuz, who was his first mentor. At that time, Sorolla was 13 years old. He spent approximately two years there, during which he demonstrated that his vocation was painting and that, without a doubt, he had a natural gift for it. When he finished these preliminary studies, in 1878, he obtained what could be considered a great reward at that time: he entered the School of Fine Arts in Valencia. At the institution he received an education grounded in seventeenth-century Spanish painting; in other words, an education based primarily on the work of Diego Velázquez.

It was during these years at school that he began to shape his identity as an artist. He had many mentors throughout his time as a student in Fine Arts, but if there was one to be singled out, Gonzalo Salvá Simbor (1854-1923) was certainly one of the most important. It was him who introduced Sorolla to the world of plein air painting. Undoubtedly a great discovery for the then young Valencian, because if there is anything he is known for today, it is for his landscape work.

But beginnings are not easy. Not even for Joaquín Sorolla. When he finished his studies, back in 1881, the 18-year-old Sorolla decided to participate in the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid with three Marinas. Far from standing out, the truth is that his works went unnoticed; it is said that because they did not fit in with the historical and dramatic theme that was in trend at the time.


Marina (1880). Sorolla painted it when he had not yet completed his training. Sorolla Museum, Madrid.


In any case, his trip to Madrid to bring his works was not entirely in vain. He did not have the expected success in the contest, it is true, but he had the opportunity to visit the Prado Museum. He was captivated by the work of the painter he had studied and analyzed so much during his years as a student of Fine Arts: Diego Velázquez.

Back in Valencia after his trip to Madrid, Sorolla gets in touch with Ignacio Pinazo Camarlench -commonly known as Pinazo-, with whom he quickly connects. As a matter of fact, Pinazo insisted on developing Sorolla’s skills as a landscape painter. It is even said that the artistic understanding between the two is such that some works of both painters are often mistaken for each other. Although Sorolla eventually formed his own style, it is true that Pinazo showed him a new way of treating light in painting that influenced his work.

Progressive recognition of his work

In 1883, Sorolla returned to Madrid with the intention of immersing himself even more in the great artists whom he had the pleasure of admiring at the Prado Museum. Therefore, during his second stay in the capital, the Valencian devoted himself to copying Velázquez, of course, but also other painters such as Ribera or El Greco.

Sorolla, far from giving up after his first refusal at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts, returned in 1884. This time he did so with a historical painting, Dos de Mayo, which he painted in one of the corrals of the bullring in Valencia, under the guidance of his teacher Pinazo. Who knows if the fact that it was the first time that a historical painting was painted from life may have been an incentive, but the fact is that Sorolla won the second medal.

IMAGEN 2Dos de mayo (1884)

Such was his success that that same year he entered a competition organized by the Provincial Council of Valencia, whose prize was a scholarship to study at the Spanish Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. He continued the historical line that had begun with the previous contest and presented El grito de Palleter (The Cry of Palleter). The jury, impressed, awarded the scholarship to a 20-year-old Sorolla. The work, created using the chiaroscuro technique, shows different figures in the most varied postures. As an anecdote, after his first two experiences in painting competitions, it is said that Sorolla told a colleague of his the following: “Here, to make yourself known and win medals, you have to paint death”.


El grito de Palleter (1884)

 The search for his personal identity

Thanks to the contests and scholarships in which he participates, finally the trip to Rome takes place. There, as it could not be otherwise, he is fascinated by the Italian Renaissance painters. However, he not only fell in love with classical art, but also came into contact with fellow artists such as Mariano Fortuny, whose artistic influence is still alive years after his death.

From Rome he moved to Paris, it is said that he was looking for new horizons. The truth is that little is known about Sorolla’s stay in the French capital, but if there is something that transcended was the fascination he felt when he saw the exhibitions of two painters: the German Adolf Menzel and the French Jules Bastien-Lepage. According to his biographers, he took something from both artists after his visit to Paris: from the former, the exuberance of his palette; from the latter, his interest in themes of social protest. In addition, in the Parisian streets he also had the opportunity to take a closer look at Impressionist painting.

In his travels between Rome and Paris, Sorolla met many Spanish artists: Francisco Domingo Marqués, the sculptor Mariano Benlliure y Gil, José Villegas y Cordero and Emilio Sala Francés, among many others.

A dark moment in Sorolla’s career

There is no true data to confirm it, but it is said that, back in Italy, he chose to travel around the country. According to the small colored notes that were found, it is thought that he was back and forth in Italian lands between the autumn of 1885 and the spring of 1886. It was after that when he decided to settle in Rome and begin to design the work that he would present at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts, whose next edition would be held the following year. He tried different themes, until he finally decided on one with a historical-religious motif: The Burial of Christ.

The painter already felt the disaster that was coming his way and so he told his brother-in-law in a letter in 1887, before leaving Rome. “I have suffered much more than you can imagine,” the letter said. He had left aside color and light, two characteristics in which he felt comfortable, to bring “sobriety and mysticism”.

As if he had guessed his own future, his work did not please the academics. The painting he presented seemed more historical than religious, which did not satisfy those who had to judge it. They assumed that, being one of the most dramatic passages of the Bible, Sorolla’s piece had hardly a trace of that pain. Moreover, they expected a line similar to that of Dos de Mayo, which he presented years before. It is true that he was awarded a diploma, but the painter never picked it up. Such was his displeasure that so much effort and suffering did not pay off, that he rolled up the work and kept it in the basement of his house. It is said that he even destroyed it himself, and this is how it could be seen in the temporary exhibition that was installed in the Sorolla Museum.


Reconstruction of El entierro de Cristo (1887)

 His resurgence

Such was the episode he suffered that he left Rome to settle in Asis. There, together with the painter José Benlliure y Gil, he began to take an interest in costumbrist painting and, little by little, he began to make a place for himself in the Spanish-American market, where he sold watercolors with this theme. His scholarship is still in force, but his situation is a little precarious, so this way of subsisting allows him to continue there.

But not everything was painting at that time, because Sorolla also found love. On September 8, 1888, he married Clotilde García del Castillo, the daughter of the photographer Antonio García Peris, with whom he had worked years before. Although they were married in Valencia, the couple settled for a time in Asis, until the painter finished his scholarship and they returned to Spain.

The consolidation of Joaquín Sorolla

Already recovered from the criticism of his Entierro de Cristo some years before, when he settled in Madrid, Sorolla again presented his work at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in 1890. On this occasion he presented Boulevard de Paris, which was undoubtedly inspired by the artist’s visits to the French capital. In this edition he also came into contact with two painters who would mark his next works. On the one hand, José Jiménez Aranda who, besides being a great follower of Fortuny, tried to direct Sorolla’s costumbrist scenes towards something more commercial. On the other hand, Aureliano de Beruete y Moret: a landscape painter, he was an enthusiastic traveler who informed Sorolla about the novelties around Europe and who, in addition, was an important contact for the Valencian among the aristocrats of Madrid.

During this period, two new themes emerged in Sorolla’s work: social realism and marine costumbrism.

Social realism in the work of Joaquín Sorolla

Like many other currents at that time, social realism was a fashion that had its origin in Bastien-Lepge and his work. Its objective? Of course: to highlight the flaws of the society of the time.

Otra Margarita! (first medal in the National Exhibition of 1892), ¡… y aún dicen que el pescado es caro! (also first medal in the 1895 contest), Trata de blancas (1894) or Triste herencia (1899), are some of the works that Sorolla made within the theme of social realism.

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