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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Valencian artist Joaquin Sorolla combined elements of Impressionism and Realism with charming figurative content and and an abudance of light to leave behind an extensive and truly breaktaking oeuvre. He remains one of the most famous Spanish artists of all time.

The artist developed a strong international reputation during his own lifetime and certainly can be considered one of the few to have achieved success whilst alive. Most famous names from the past have actually risen in popularity posthumously. Sorolla was an exceptionally skilled draughtsman and talents would form the backbone of most of his paintings. He also became well known for using particularly large canvases for much of his better known pieces. Best of all, of course, was his bold use of light. He was also an impressively productive artist, with around 500 hundred paintings attributed to him at the time of writing. Each one would also be accompanied by whole series of study drawings, making his overall oeuvre run into the thousands. In summary, Sorolla combined a number of popular influences with his own unique approach to his immediate environment to produce one of the most respected and loved set of paintings from any Spanish artist in history.

At the height of his fame, Sorolla would exhibit his work right across Europe and also sometimes in North America. He focused on the key cities of culture in these regions, taking in the likes of Madrid, Paris, Venice, Munich, Berlin, and Chicago. He would also take the time when on his journeys to acquaint himself with the best of the local art. Even at this stage, there was a great spread of art between these cities, with most major European painters having their work spread right across the world. It offered him the chance to learn from all manner of different styles and artistic movements. Early on in his development he also spent time abroad specifically to get the best tutoring possible as well as learn from seeing original art up close. He received funding to stay in Rome for a number of years in connection with the Spanish Academy in Rome. Such opportunities are scarce, and only become available to young artists who show considerable promise.

In order to put into context just quite the success that the artist achieved during his own lifetime, an exhibition of Sorolla paintings in New York in 1909 received nearly 160,000 visitors in total. It was considered at the time to have been one of the most successful art exhibitions in American history, with Sorolla being labelled as one of the great living painters - on its opening he was aged 46 and at the top of his game. The success of North American exhibitions, such as this one, explains why so many of his original pieces are now owned by institutions in the US. That said, his native Spain still serves his career best, including the world famous Prado Museum in Madrid as well as his own dedicated museum in the artist's native city of Valencia. Those fortunate enough to visit the latter will also come across some of the locations for his work, most of which are carefully selected spots across the region's coastline. For those unable to see his work up close and personal, our paintings section features the highlights from his career and also includes larger photographs to reveal more detail, where they were available.

As a young artist, Sorolla experimented with different styles for many years. He took in a wide range of influences and was not sure which approach best suited his own tastes and skills. He came across a number of naturalist artists who inspired him to capture the lives of local, working class figures. He also tried to capture light accurately, spending many years perfecting his knowledge of its impact on the items within his paintings. These two elements of a style had been seen before, but their combination together was unusual. The painter received academic reward for this approach fairly early, including various regional awards that encouraged him to continue along this path. He had now moved on substantially from his early academic training in Spain, plus the plethora of history paintings that initially resulted from that. The real artist had now certainly emerged, and would continue with this unique style for the many decades ahead.

"...Joaquin Sorolla is the true master of light...."Claude Monet

The Spanish master, Diego Velazquez, was to become one of the most influential artists in history, and Sorolla was another who took huge inspiration from his career. Many believed him to be amongst the finest artists who took the achievements of Velazquez into their own style, due to his impressive work in laying out a composition and also the subtle touches of brushwork that could be seen in all of his major pieces. Those knowledgeable on Baroque art as well as the intricacies of Velazquez's paintings will be able to spot specific elements of influence within Sorolla's career. Some of his portraits were sombre and subtle which was perfectly aligned with the most extraordinary artist to have come from Spain during that period, though much of his other work went in other directions which diverged from this Velazquez influence. We can conclude that Sorolla was, indeed, Velazquez's son, as many have suggested, but that the later artist did not stop there in simply reproducing in the style of the great master, and also sought his own direction through inspiration from his local region of Spain.

Sorolla's Role within the European Impressionist Movement

Naturally, the Impressionist movement was a French-born creation. It took time to lay roots in the French art scene, but a number of like-minded individuals continued to exhibit their work in Paris until critics started to warm to their groundbreaking style. Even the likes of Monet took time to achieve respect for their approach, but in the present day you will find these artists to be amongst the most popular of all. The public appear to find this style to be both aesthetically pleasing but also immediately accessible, with no back story necessary. Whilst academics will crow over the lesser known details of a composition, perhaps enjoying a collective smugness about their levels of a niche knowledge, the public will immediately what art they like, and what they don't. They may not always be able to constructively explain their choices, but the artists within the French impressionist movement, plus those elsewhere who were on the fringes of this movement, generally tend to appeal to the tastes of the masses. Sorolla was a true master of light and this helped him to stand out within the collection of non-French artists whose style was strongly linked to the French Impressionists.

This Spanish painter was born 26 years after Claude Monet, an artist who many still see as the true spearhead of the French Impressionists. This gap allowed Sorolla to be inspired by that collection of artists based in Paris, but also to be close enough that he could actually draw opinion from the very same artists on his own work. They undoubtably appreciated his work, as well as the idea that this talented individual was spreading their own ideas across into Spain. Within the modern era we tend to acknowledge the beauty of Sorolla's paintings, but just see them as independent pieces, without concerning ourselves with how his oeuvre fits in with the overall progression of Impressionism within the European continent. The fact that Monet would make a point as to how much he respected the Spaniard's use of light within his paintings, was probably the best backing any artist could have received in the early 20th century and is a common feature by exhibition curators who are seeking to promote exhibitions of Sorolla's work to those who are well acquainted with the French Impressionists, but perhaps less so with this artist's equally impressive oeuvre.

Sorolla's own approach was somewhat of a combination of Impressionism and Realism, which he then exposed to his local environment in Valencia. Some of the more similar artists in style to this would be the likes of John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn. Within France itself, you would also find that the likes of Caillebotte, Bazille and Degas provide connections to his own career, in different ways. Whilst Monet dominates our idea of Impressionism, the actual list of artists around the world that produced work with similarities to his own is considerable. Modern tastes are varied and particularly democratic, but a strong desire remains for the work of this group of painters, perhaps more than any other movement from recent centuries in Europe. Even the Renaissance masters, as respected as they are, struggle to achieve quite the love from the public as the other artists mentioned here continue to enjoy. It is also worth remembering that landscape painting, for example, was not even a major genre until the arrival of the likes of Lorrain, Turner and Constable.