Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light

Rating: 5

By Roderick Conway Morris

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) was hailed in his lifetime as ‘the grandson of Velázquez and the son of Goya’. Born on the Valencian coast, orphaned as an infant and brought up by his uncle, who was a locksmith, he showed precocious talents as an artist and was already exhibiting in his teenage years.

When Sorolla participated in the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900, the flamboyant Italian painter Giovanni Boldini acknowledged ‘the superb skill of this Spanish devil’, and Sorolla went on to beat Alma-Tadema, Boldini, Klimt and Whistler to carry off the Grand Prix. This marked the beginning of Sorolla’s glittering international career, during which he was showered with prizes and honours on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sorolla is now little-known in this country, though, and there is only one of his paintings in a national collection, a portrait of Princess Beatrice, sister of Edward VII, in the National Portrait Gallery. But a dazzling show at the National Gallery of 58 of Sorolla’s finest works provides an unmissable opportunity, the first in Britain for more than a century, to rediscover this great Spanish master.

Sorolla’s own humble origins meant that he brought to his ‘social pictures’ of the 1890s a real understanding of Spain’s common folk and their vicissitudes. Works such as Another Marguerite!, of a young woman he caught sight of on a train, accused of murdering her baby, being taken under guard to prison, and Sad Inheritance, of crippled and blind orphans, bathing naked on a Valencian beach, are still able to pack an emotional punch.

However, Sorolla also began painting more celebratory beach scenes, virtuoso exercises in capturing Mediterranean light, painted en plein air, as the traces of sand still embedded in their thick impastos bear witness. He also revealed himself to be a brilliant portraitist. His María with Mantilla, of his daughter, is a clear tribute to Goya’s Duchess of Alba, and after seeing Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus in England in 1902, he was inspired to paint a luminous nude of his wife Clotilde.

In 1909, having been taken up by the Hispanophile American millionaire Archer Milton Huntington, founder of the Hispanic Society of America in New York, with its magnificent collection of Iberian art and culture, Sorolla exhibited in the US, selling 195 works and painting more than a score of portraits of prominent figures, including President Taft. To adorn the library of the Hispanic Society, Huntington commissioned Sorolla to paint his Vision of Spain, 14 enormous canvases of his homeland’s regions, a teeming, exhilarating, panorama of Spain’s costumes, customs and festivals – colourful preliminary studies for which are on display here – a task that was to occupy the artist for most of the last decade of his life. 

Until 7 July at the National Gallery, London; 020-7747 2885;