Can you believe I read the Guardian on occasion? I can’t. While perusing these hallowed pages, I happened upon a wonderful article about an old exhibition of Sorolla works at the National Gallery. I was instantly smacked in the face by Sewing the Sail, which I will discuss at length. I then did some more digging and was blown away by this master of light. Below are three paintings which stuck out to me as particularly inspired.
Sorolla (1863-1923) was a Spanish painter excelling in portraits, landscapes and works of social and historical themes. He is most known for extremely adept depictions of people engaged in various activities under the Spanish sun or near water, both of which feature in this review.
Sorolla was a child prodigy. Orphaned at two, he was raised by an aunt who recognised his gifts, bought him pencils and paints and got him work as a lighting assistant to a local photographer at a very early age. A breezy portrait of his beloved wife, Clotilde, from 1906, shows her focusing a brand new camera at the beach, and many of Sorolla’s paintings are lit and composed like snapshots. Guardian
Sewing the Sail, 1896
This to me is the epitome of light depiction. I’ve been to Spain many times, in many disguises, and have seen (and felt) the startling effect of the Spanish sun. This almost folkloric depiction of Valencians coming together to sew a sail for a waiting ship captures the light in a way which baffles me. Think about it, Sorolla could very well have removed the plant pots on the gorgeous blue plinths, but he kept them there so the light was split up by the leaves and petals across the sail. Let’s not ignore the fact that paintings are not pictures, everything in a painting represents a decision by the artist, not happenstance. Sorolla chose to make this more difficult and the result of his heroic effort are astounding.
Further to this, there are more flowers on the opposite side of the sail, making for further splitting of the light within the leaves, rather than on the sail, giving the effect of a really wonderful bouquet of leaves, light and colour.
Moving onto the sail itself. The crumpling effect rendered here is exquisite. Have a look at your bedsheets next time you change them and imagine the skill it takes to capture all the light and shadow on them, now put a plant in front of the window. You’ll see what Sorolla was up against. Observe the seam of the sail on the left side, roughly rendered but no less clear.
And let’s discuss the people in this painting, with their varied expressions. The third woman on the left seems to be amusing her neighbour with a story. The first woman on the left is concentrating deeply on the work at hand. The man at the back of the painting seems to be inspecting the work of an unsuspecting fourth woman, who seems to be begrudgingly taking on his criticism.
Overall this is an astonishing piece which correctly grants Sorolla the title of Master of Luminescence which I have ascribed him.
Running Along the Beach 1908
Another aspect Sorolla was known for were depictions of water and the heavenly Spanish Summer. If you’ll excuse the child with bare ankles, this is really an excellent piece. I jest of course, while children are in all circumstances off-putting, this one is rendered quite exceptionally. One is given the impression he has just this instant come from the water and begun to chase the two young ladies in front of him. the depiction of the light and water on the skin is really extraordinary.
Observe the beauty of the water in this painting. The motion is shown so wonderfully. And also the varieties in motion, there are many different levels of wave crests here. These are all shown to be in motion at the same time which is truly an achievement to behold.
Observe the gorgeous way he has depicted water being absorbed into the sand. We see this in three or four stages. At the bottom right we see relatively dry sand. Moving closer to the sea there is a layer of freshly wet sand followed by a layer of water just receding, in which the reflection of the running children is reflected roughly to give the impression of motion. Finally we have the water itself receding back, ready for the next wave to crash. the crests of the waves are also exquisite.
Nude Woman 1902 (take on Velazquez, Rokeby Venus?)
Now this isn’t just any old nude woman, this is a portrait of Sorolla’s wife, Clotilde García del Castillo, painted in 1902, when she will have been around 37 years old. I’ll refrain from any lecherous comments on the aesthetics of his wife’s buttocks, focusing instead on the way that she has been lovingly and elegantly depicted here. The curvature of her spine and the sheen on her skin, the way she is admiring her ring, almost in adoration of the man who gave it to her (insert disparaging comment about the male fantasy here), are all represented beautifully.
The way that the light catches the silk/satin sheets is also extraordinary. Observe the plush duvet and the way the folds are almost running from Clotilde’s body. Also note the translucent patterned throw at the end of the bed, a wonderful detail to contrast with the solid silk.
In the title I make the comparison with the Rokeby Venus (also known as The Toilet of Venus, Venus at her Mirror, Venus and Cupid, or La Venus del espejo) because there is a school of thought which believes Sorolla’s Nude Woman is an ode to the Rokeby Venus by Spain’s most noted painter Velázquez. I will let you draw your own comparisons but I have included a very helpful video from the National Gallery explaining at length the sensational painting below.
This is the only surviving female nude painted by Velázquez. The subject was rare in seventeenth-century Spain, where overtly sensual images were met with disapproval by the Catholic Church. In spite of this the king, and wealthy Spanish art collectors in his circle, did own mythological paintings depicting nudes by artists such as Rubens and Titian. National Gallery
I won’t go into this marvellous work as I could devote an entire post to it. Please find below a great dissection of this painting by Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, Associate Curator of Paintings 1600-1800 at the National Gallery.
There you are, two nudes for the price of one. I must say when I started doing reviews in late 2017, I never thought I would be giving my two cents on 17th Century nude paintings. Life does take us in bizarre directions.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my thoughts on these masterpieces as much as I have enjoyed writing them. I get so much out of art reviews. I maintain that every alternative perspective understood helps us to become more well rounded individuals.