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Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) was a graphic artist and a Catalan painter. He is considered an important figure of the 19th century who left a big mark in modern Spanish painting, with his work being associated with modern realism. Learn more about his life and career in our extensive biography.
In the course of his painting career, he went on to produce a broad array of portraits, landscapes, historical works, and genre painting. His work is often remembered for the bright sunlight impression and innovative spirit that it conveyed to the 19th century gloomy atmosphere in Spain. Sorolla’s paintings were above all conveyed by vigorous brushwork and use of vivid colors, which helped to make him a leading impressionism representative in the region. Nevertheless, while he was mainly celebrated for Plein-air painting featuring seashore and beach scenes, he was also good at producing historical works, landscapes, and outstanding portraits. Besides engaging in easel-painting, Joaquin was a master illusionist who managed to complete numerous mural paintings. Some of his prominent works were for the Hispanic Society of America. Other renowned paintings include works such as Another Marguerite (1892, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, and Promenade by the Sea (1909, Museo Sorolla).
His Early Life
Sorolla was born in Valencia and was the firstborn child of Joaquin Sorolla, a craftsman, and Concepcion Bastida, his wife. He became an orphan at the young age of two years after both his parents were killed in a cholera epidemic. His mother’s relatives took him in and raised him as their son. He began his artistic training in Valencia by attending art classes taught by Cayetano Capuz, a sculptor. He would, later on, enroll for art classes at the Fine Arts School of San Carlos in 1878. Three years later, he made his way to Madrid where he took up an interest in learning the works of the Golden Age painters, such as Zurbaran, Velazquez, Jose Ribera, and El Greco.
When he turned 21-years old, he got a four-year art scholarship that made it possible for him to continue studying art at the Fine Arts Academy located in Rome. He got to sharpen his skills under the tutelage of F. Pradilla, who was the director of the Spanish Academy. A year after beginning his scholarship in Rome, he got an opportunity to travel to Paris to attend exhibitions put up by Adolph Menzel (1815—1905) and Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848—1884). Adolph was an academically inclined painter while Bastien was a rural scene painter. During the trip to Paris, he also got a chance to meet and interact with the open-air painters. It’s a practice that he would later take with him back to Spain. He got to assimilate this particular practice while he was staying in Biarritz and working with Aureliano Beruete (1845—1912), a landscape painter.
Joaquin Sorolla's Early Paintings
Sorolla went back home to his native home, Valencia, in 1888 and got married to Clotilde Garcia del Castillo. The couple was blessed with three children. He relocated to Madrid in 1890 together with his family. Over the next decade, he embarked on a serious production of large-scale paintings including genre paintings, history painting, oriental-style works, and mythological canvasses. The paintings were placed in exhibitions all over Europe, and in galleries in Washington and Chicago. Within no time, his work had started to garner attention. Another Marguerite, one of his famous paintings painted in 1892 managed to win a gold medal at the Madrid National Exhibition. It would later win the 1st prize after being showcased at the Chicago International Exhibition. It was during its time here that it was bought from him and then bestowed to a Missouri museum.
After the exhibition, he shifted his focus to painting The Relic (1893, Museum of Fine Arts, Bilbao). This was the most famous religious paintings featured in the classical realist genre of the time. The Realist and Another Marguerite were the works that assisted to propel Sorolla’s reputation as a 19th-century leader of modern art. During this time, his initial academic art style had started been displaced by a renewed interest in the Impressionist style focused on the light effects. Sorolla was interested in subjects that featured strong social content. It’s something that can be seen in genre paintings such as They Still Say that Fish is Expensive (1894). This particular portrait received a lot of praise and acclamation at the Paris Salon. Thanks to this painting, he also got to receive increased recognition in Madrid.
Portrait of Dr. Simmaro is another masterpiece that was painted in 1897 by Sorolla at the Microscope (Luis Simarro Legacy Trust, 1897). In this painting, he embarks on a journey aimed at recreating the environment present in Dr. Simmaro’s laboratory. In it, he gets to capture the luminous atmosphere that is created by a gas burner’s reddish-yellow illumination. He then goes ahead to contrast this with the pale purple afternoon sunlight making its way into the lab through the windows. When it was completed, it was taken to the National Exhibition of Fine Arts together with another portrait that was entitled Research for exhibition purposes. Sorolla got to earn the Prize of Honour from the two paintings.
Sad Inheritance (1899, Caja de Ahorros de Valencia) is another important oil painting featuring his gigantic Impressionist style work. The portrait was meant to depict polio handicapped children taking a bath at the water’s edge. From this work, he got to earn his most important award, The Grand Prix. This was in addition to earning a medal of honour during the Universal Exhibition held in 1900 in Paris. A similar award was repeated a year later in Madrid at the National Exhibition. Even though this work officially marked the end of his profession as a career artist, his interest in depicting color and light didn’t wane but continued to remain as strong as ever. Sorolla was without a doubt still keen on painting casual impressionist paintings. While preparing to paint Sad Inheritance, he had managed to paint several casual paintings, two of which he gifted to William Merritt Chase (1849—1916) and John Singer Sargent (1856—1925).
While many appeared to view him as the most celebrated Spanish Impressionist painter, Sorolla chose to give the movement an interpretation of his own. This saw him choosing to focus on movement, color, and light in all his figures. This can be easily seen in the twentieth-century paintings such as Selling Fish and Girl Leaving the Bath. Another defining factor in his paintings was his preferred environment. Promenade by the Sea (1909), Beach at Valencia (1908), and Children at the Seashore (1903) are good examples that helped to showcase his love of seascape and beaches. They also highlight his love for the intense colors given out by the Spanish Mediterranean coast. His works left a lasting imprint on realist artists in Catalonia and the greater region of Spain. Sorolla managed to impact the works of both genre and landscape painters and led to the emergence of the “Sorollism” movement.
The Galeries Georges Petit located in Paris held a major exhibition in 1906 featuring all his works. Included in the exhibition was a big array of figure painting, portrait art, and landscape painting works. This exhibition was a big success which led to Sorolla getting appointed to the French Legion of Honour where he held an Officer position. Additional honours held by Sorolla included an election to the Academy of San Fernando located in Madrid and also to the French Academy of Fine arts. Additional large-scale exhibitions followed in Germany and in England, whose success wasn’t as significant as that of his earlier exhibitions. In 1909, he held a one-man show in New York courtesy of the Hispanic Society of America. The exhibition came on the heels of his appointment as a member of this society. The exhibition resulted in the sale of close to 200 of his works.
After holding his exhibition in the city of New York, he spent a total of six months in the country. During his time here, he got to paint 20 paintings before finishing off with a portrait of Taft, the US President. Even though formal portraiture didn’t feature among his most beloved genres, it still made for a good income source. Through it, he got to follow in the footsteps of renowned Spanish artists such as El Greco and Velazquez. This was in addition to getting an opportunity to compete with John Singer Sargent, a famous modern artist, as can be seen in the 1911 Portrait of Mrs. Ira Nelson Morris and her Children. The best portrait paintings made by Joaquin Sorolla comprised of the paintings he made when painting outdoors. Such portraits made it possible for him to combine his love of light and colour with formality. Good examples of outdoor portraits include Maria at La Granja (1907) and Portrait of King Alfonso XIII in a Hussar’s Uniform (1907).
Sorolla visited America for the second time in 1911, where he got a chance to exhibit 160 of his latest paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. During the same period, he got commissioned to decorate the Hispanic Society of America headquarters which is based in New York City. His decoration works featured a total of 14 enormous mural paintings. While at it, he also dedicated close to ten years painting a large wall painting that was later on called The Provinces of Spain. He used the frieze to showcase the different festivals and customs practiced in different areas of Spain such as Leon, Aragon, Castile, Catalonia, Galicia, Valencia, Andalusia, and Seville. In each painting, he made sure to illustrate the culture, heritage, and landscape of that region. The works were officially completed in 1919 but were only opened up to the public in 1926. Sorolla suffered a stroke in 1920 that left him paralyzed. He later passed on in August 1923, three years after suffering from the stroke.
The Legacy of Joaquin Sorolla
Upon his passing on, Sorolla’s widow chose to leave a large chunk of his painting collection to the state. Eventually, these paintings were used to form the Museo Sorolla collection. This was the artist’s house located in the city of Madrid. In 1932, the museum officially opened its doors to the Spanish public. The paintings and portraits he made during his life are displayed in museums all over America, Europe, and Spain. They are also represented in many private collections in America and Europe. J. Paul Getty in 1933 acquired ten impressionist beach scenes painted by Joaquin Sorolla. A few paintings from this purchase are today displayed in the J. Paul Getty Museum. In 2007, the Petit Palais in Paris, France got to exhibit many of Joaquin Sorolla's works. They were displayed alongside works produced by John Singer Sargent, another renowned Spanish painter. Singer employed a similar painting style as Sorolla.
Quick Facts on Joaquin Sorallo
- Sorolla came from a poor family and got orphaned at a very young age. It’s believed that his parents died from a cholera epidemic. Together with his sister, Sorallo was raised and cared for by his maternal aunt and uncle. He got to receive his initiation into art at the tender age of 9.
- He demonstrated an interest in art from a young age. His artistic talent manifested itself from a young age that led to him getting admitted to the Academy of San Carlos located in Valencia while he was fifteen years.
- After his marriage to Clotilde Garcia del Castillo, his family soon became a popular theme in his work.
- Sad Inheritance, his painting depicting children handicapped by polio bathing at the water’s edge marked an important turning point in his art career.