Joaquín Sorolla: Light for Art’s Sake or How the Sun Became Paint
‘Light is the life of everything it touches’. These words were the guiding principle of the oeuvre of the Spanish luminist painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), whose prolific artistic output is paradigmatic of the varying modernist tendencies of fin-de-siecle Europe. Luminism in itself, a term often criticized by art historians for its rather arbitrary usage, is considered in its modern variant a derivation of Impressionism. It differs from Impressionism chiefly by a preserved adherence to line and figuration. Impressionist painting is characterized by the swift dabs of paint that constitute its surface, emphasizing the picture plane, and by the overarching aim to capture the world as it appears to the naked eye en plein air. On the other hand, Sorolla’s Neo-Impressionist Luminism retains a greater attention to detail, long and heavy brushstrokes, which build up deeper, softer texture and sharp contrasts between dark and light values, which form the basis of his paintings’ striking luminosity. Thus, rather than attempting to convey simply an impression, Sorolla employs light and color as principal tenets without abandoning the inherent corporeality of the human figure and the tangibility of its surroundings. Instead, he emphasizes them through his masterful handling of oil paint.
One look at Sorolla’s canvases suffices to note his distinctive treatment of light through the fluidity of his brushwork. His most famous canvases being, his seascapes, Sorolla initially gained popularity by painting formal portraits. Although he disliked portraiture as he felt his artistic freedom was being restricted, it was what eventually secured him financial stability. Even in his portraits, Sorolla’s treatment of tonal modulation and loaded but swift brushwork is indicative of the significant influence, which the work of Velazquez had on him. Sorolla typically presented his subjects seated and in a three-quarter view, conveying a sense of immediacy and lack of artificiality, while also managing to preserve an impression of inherent dignity and composure in the naturalism of their faces. Among his more prominent clients was the Nobel Prize winner José Echegaray. His portrait (1905) exhibits Sorolla’s tendency to place his subjects in a setting predominated by dark and earthly tones such as black, greys and browns, while distinctly illuminating their faces, which emerge in sharp contrast from the obscurity of their surroundings.
The portraits of Sorolla’s wife, present us with a similar sense of proximity to the sitter, enhanced by his use of unusual angles, the picture frame often cropping a part of the subject. His use of a lighter palette of predominating pastel blues and greys in Clotilde in a grey dress (1900), combined with the figure’s spontaneous pose, as if she just left her chair, suggests a more feminine levity and warmth in comparison to the gravitas typically associated with his male sitters. Sorolla’s angles, the natural body language of his subjects, and the attention to the effects of light on different surfaces can be traced not only to Velazquez but also to the more modern influence of photography, as his patron and father-in-law was the prominent Spanish photographer Antonio Garcia Péris.
These characteristics also form an integral part of Sorolla’s depictions of scenes by the sea. Originally from Valencia, he was sensitive to the warm light of Southern Spain, conveying it in the remarkable brilliance of his marine paintings. Sorolla’s international success, especially in the United States is often interpreted in relation to his neglect of unpleasant social realities, his affinity for a certain joie de vivre, and his consequent appeal to the bourgeoisie. As a result of the industrialization of Spain at the end of the 19th century, the beach acquired the status of a particular site of social entertainment, attracting a rising middle class in search of respite from urban life. The focus on the fashionable appeal of the sea coast, as untouched by social problems and therefore often frequented by the bourgeoisie, thus acts as a metonymy for distinctive socioeconomic modernity.
These paintings, however, comprise not only a depiction of a modern social space but also center on previously neglected by painters members of society, namely women and children. In addition to these figures forming the principal subject matter of Sorolla’s beach scenes, the paintings are also of a truly large format, elevating them from the constrictive category of mere genre scenes to the scale of history painting and imbuing them with unmistakable visual force. Surely, part of the reason for this lies in Sorolla’s overarching aesthetic aspirations and his fascination with the way light reflects off textures and surfaces.
His painting Strolling Along the Seashore, 1909 depicts two women in white dresses, idly walking by the sea. One of them is holding a white umbrella while trying to remove the windblown veil of her hat from her face. Her companion holds a hat in one hand, her face visible, yet oblivious to the viewer. The angle is again unusual, emphasizing the light brown stretch of sand in the foreground while cutting the top of the woman’s hat. Strolling Along the Seashore is paradigmatic of Sorolla’s luminous whites, mixed with yellow, blue, or vermilion to convey the impressions of light and shadow, respectively. These whites, juxtaposed with the blue hues of the sea and the earthly tones of the sand, make for a rather restricted palette, which by its simplicity underlines the skillful portrayal of textures and fabrics touched by sunlight. Hence, Sorolla manages to convey through paint not merely an intangible brilliance but to capture the way the human eye perceives it when the world around us absorbs and disperses it.
Sorolla’s public appeal has consequently been presented as the inevitable result of his refusal to depict those social realities, which the bourgeoisie would rather forget. Hence, his focus on the beauty of the Mediterranean coast and its transformation into a fashionable social space has often been interpreted as representative of only one (pleasant) side of turn-of-the-century modernity. However, it is doubtful that Sorolla even attempted to be a painter of modernity, rather he focused on something considered to be the origin of beauty since ancient times: light. The mystic philosopher Bonaventura, influenced by Aristotle, defines it as a substantial form, organizing matter and rendering it comprehensible, comprising a cosmic aesthetic. Sorolla’s artistic considerations are thus closer to an exploration of this cosmic beauty than to any concern for modern reality. Therefore, his oeuvre cannot be judged solely by the merit of its social implications, as this would prove reductive from a formal point of view, and it should serve as a reminder that sometimes art is about nothing more but art.
Duncan C. Phillips Jr., ‘’Sorolla: the Painter of Sunlight’’, Art and Progress, Dec., 1912, Vol. 4, №2 (Dec., 1912), pp. 791–797
Alberto Acereda, ‘’Dos visiones del espacio marino como modernidad. Entre la poesía de Rubén Darío y la pintura de Joaquín Sorolla’’, Revista Hispánica Moderna, Dec., 2002, Año 55, №2 (Dec., 2002), pp. 281–301
Veronique Gerard Powell, Sorolla, ‘’sol y sombra’’, Revue des Deux Mondes, JUILLET-AOÛT 2009, (JUILLET-AOÛT 2009), pp. 175–179
Umberto Eco, On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea, 2004