We might say of the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida that he was one of those who came into the world with a ray of sunshine in their brains – altering the phrase of Villiers de l’Isle Adam. Senor Sorolla is also one of the half-dozen (are there so many?) great living painters. He belongs to the line of Velasquez and Goya, and he seldom recalls either. Under the auspices of the Hispanic Society of America there was an exhibition of his works in 1909, some two hundred and fifty in all, hung in the museum of the society, West 156th Street, near Broadway. The liveliest interest was manifested by the public and professional people in this display. Those who saw Sorolla’s art at the Paris Exposition, 1900, and at the Georges Petit Gallery, Paris, a few years ago need not be reminded of his virile quality and masterly brush-work. Some art lovers in this city are aware of his Sad Inheritance, the property of Mr. John E. Berwind, which has been hung in the Sunday-school room of the Ascension Church, Fifth Avenue and T e n t h Street. It is one of the artist’s few pictures in which he feels the Weltschmerz. His is a nature bubbling over with health and happiness.
He is a Valencian, was born in 1863 of poor parents, and by reason of his native genius and stubborn will power he became what he is the painter of vibrating sunshine without equal Let there be no mincing of comparisons in this assertion. Not Turner, not Monet painted so directly blinding shafts of sunlight as has this Spaniard. He is an impressionist, but not of the school of Monet. His manner is his own, cunningly compounded as it is of the proceeds of half a dozen artists. His trip to Rome resulted in nothing but a large eclectic canvas without individuality; what had this pagan in common with saints or sinners! He relates that in Paris Bastien-Lepage and Menzel affected him profoundly. This statement is not to be contradicted; nevertheless Sorolla is the master of those two masters in his proper province of the portrayal of outdoor life. Degas was too cruel when he called Bastien the “Bouguereau of the modern movement”; Bastien academicised Manet and other moderns. He said nothing new. As for Menzel, it would be well here to correct the notion bandied about town that he discovered impressionism before the French. He did not. He went to Paris in 1867. Meissonier at first, and Iater Courbet, influenced him. His Rolling Mill was painted in 1876. It is very Courbet. The Paris Exposition, 1867, picture shows the in with his own eyes, modified by the thousand subtle experiences in which he has steeped his brain. He has the tact of omission very well developed. After years of labour he has achieved a personal vision. It is so completely his that to copy it would be to perpetrate a burlesque. He em-ploys the divisional taches of Monet, spots, cross-hatchings, big sabre like strokes à la John Sargent, indulges in smooth sinuous silhouettes, or huge splotches, refulgent patches, explosions, vibrating surfaces; surfaces that are smooth and oily surfaces, as in his waters, that are exquisitely translucent. You can’t pin him down to a particular formula. His technique in other hands would be coarse, crashing, brassy, bald, and too fortis- simo. It sometimes is all these discouraging things. It is too often deficient in the finer moduIations. But he makes one forget this by his entrain, sincerity, and sympathy with his subject. As a composer he is less satisfactory; it is the first impression or nothing in his art. Apart from his luscious, tropical colour, he is a sober narrator of facts. Ay, but he is a big chap, this amiable little Valencian with a big heart and a hand that reaches out and grabs down clouds, skies, scoops up the sea, and sets running, wriggling, screaming a joyful band of naked boys and girls over the golden summer sands in a sort of ecstatic symphony of pantheism.
How does he secure such intensity of pitch in his painting of atmosphere, of sunshine? By a convention, just as the falsification of shadows by rendering them darker than nature made the necessary contrasts in the old formula. Brightness in clear-coloured shadows is the key-note of impressionistic open-air effects. W. C. Brownell French Art – puts it in this way : “Take a landscape with a cloudy sky, which means diffused light in the old sense of the term, and observe the effect upon it of a sudden burst of sunlight. What is the effect where consider-able portions of the scene are suddenly thrown into marked shadow, as well as others illuminated with intense light? Is the absolute value of the parts in shadow lowered or raised ? Raised, of course, by reflected light. Formerly, to get the contrast between sunlight and shad-ow in proper scale the painter would have painted the shadows darker than they were before the sun appeared. Relatively they are darker, since their value, though heightened, is raised infinitely less than the parts in sunlight. Absolutely, their value is raised considerably. If, therefore, they are painted lighter than they were before the sun appeared they in themselves seem truer. The part of Monet’s pictures that is in shadow is measurably true, far truer than it would have been if painted under the old theory of correspondence, and had been unnaturally darkened to express the relation of contrast between shadow and sunlight.”
Like Turner, Monet forced the colour of his shadows, as MacColl points out, and like Monet, Sorolla forces the colour of his shadowsbut what a compeller of beautiful shadows forces the key to the very verge of the luminous abyss. Senor Beruete, the Velasquez expert, truthfully says of Sorolla’s method: “His canvases contain a great variety of blues and violets, balanced and juxtaposed with reds and yellows. These, and the skilful use of white, provide him with a colour scheme of great simplicity, originality, and beauty.” There are no non-transparent shadows, and his handling of blacks reveals a sensitive feeling for values. Consider that black-gowned portrait of his wife. His underlying structural sense is never obscured by his fat, flowing brush.
It must not be supposed that because of Sorolla’s enormous brio his general way of entrapping nature is brutal. He is masculine and absolutely free from the neurasthenic morbidezza of his fellow-countryman Zuloaga. (And far from attaining that painter’s inches as a psychologist.) For the delineation of moods nocturnal, of poetic melancholy, of the contemplative aspect of life we must not go to Sorolla. He is not a thinker. He is the painter of bright mornings and brisk salt breezes. He is half Greek. There is Winkelmann’s Heiterkeit, blitheness, in his groups of romping children, in their unashamed bare skins and naive attitudes. Boys on Valencian beaches evidently believe in Adamic undress. Nor do the girls seem to care. Stretched upon his stomach on the beach, a youth, straw-hatted, stares at the spume of the rollers. His companion is not so unconventionally disarrayed, and as she has evidently not eaten of the poisonous apple of wisdom she is free from embarrassment. Balzac’s two infants, innocent of their sex, could not be less care-free than the Sorolla children. How tenderly, sensitively, he models the hardly nubile forms of maidens. The movement of their legs as they race the strand, their dash into the water, or their nervous pausing at the rim of the wet here is poetry for you, the poetry of glorious days in youth-land. Curiously enough his types are for the most part more international than racial; that is, racial as are Zuloaga’s Basque brigands, manolas, and gipsies.
But only this? Can’t he paint anything but massive oxen wading to their buttocks in the sea; or fisher boats with swelling sails blotting out the horizon or a girl after a dip standing, as her boyish cavalier covers her with a robe — you see the clear, pink flesh through her garb; or vistas of flower gardens with roguish maidens and courtly parks; peasants harvesting, working women sorting raisins; sailors mending nets, boys at rope-making is all this great art? Where are the polished surfaces of the cultured studio worker; where the bric-a-brac which we inseparably connect with pseudo-Spanish art? You will not find any of them. Sorolla, with good red blood in his veins, the blood of a great, misunderstood race, paints what he sees on the top of God’s earth. He is not a book but a normal nature-lover. He is in love with light, and by his treatment of relative values creates the illusion of sunflooded landscapes. He does not cry for the “sun,” as did Oswald Alving; it comes to him at the beckoning of his brush. His many limitations are but the defects of his good qualities.
Sorolla is sympathetic. He adores babies and delights in dancing. His babies are irresistible. He can. sound the Mitleid motive without a suspicion of odious sentimentality. What charm there is in some of his tiny children as they lean their heads on their mothers! They fear the ocean, yet are fascinated by it. Near by is a mother and child in bed. They sleep. The right hand of the mother stretches, instinctively, toward the infant. It is the sweet, unconscious gesture of millions of mothers. On one finger of the hand there is just a hint of gold from a ring. The values of the white counterpane and the contrast of dark-brown hair on the pillow are truthfully expressed. One mother and babe, all mothers and babes, are in this picture. Turn to that old rascal in a brown cloak, who is about to taste a glass of wine. A snag gleams white in his sly, thirsty mouth. The wine tastes fine, eh ! You recall Goya. As for the boys swimming, the sensations of darting and weaving through velvety waters are produced as if by wizardry. But you never think of Sorolla’s line, for line, colour, idea, actuality are merged. The translucence of this sea in which the boys plash and plunge is another witness to the verisimilitude of Sorolla’s vision. Boecklin’s large canvas at the new Pinakothek, Munich, is often cited as a tour de force of water painting. We allude to the mer-maids and mermen playing in the trough of a greenish sea. It is mere “property” water when compared to Sorolla’s closely observed and clearly reproduced waves. Rhythm that is the prime secret of his vitality.
His portraiture, when he is interested in his sitters, is excellent. Beruete is real, so Cossio, the author of the El Greco biography; so the realistic novelist Blanco Ibanez; but the best, after those of his, Sorolla’s, wife and children, is that of Frantzen, a photographer, in the act of squeezing the bulb. It is a frank characterisation. The various royalties and high-born persons whose counterfeit presentments are accomplished with such genuine effort are interesting; but the heart is missing. Cleverness there is in the portraits of Alphonse and his wife’s gorgeous costume should be the envy of our fashionable portrait manufacturers. It is under the skies that Sorolla is at ease. Monet, it must not be forgotten, had two years’ military service in Morocco; Sorolla has always lived, saturated himself in the rays of a hot sun and painted beneath the hard blue dome of Spanish skies.
Sorolla is a painting temperament, and the freshening breezes and sunshine that emanate from his canvases should drive away the odours of the various chemical cook-shops which are called studios in our “world of art. ”
One cannot speak too much of the large-minded and cultivated spirit of Archer Milton Huntington who is the projector and patron of the exhibitions at the Hispanic Society Museum. Sorolla y Bastida, through the invitation of Mr. Huntington, made this exhibition. Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida OnlineModern Schools Of PaintingSpanish Painting – Seventeenth Century To The Present Day