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Joaquin Sorolla (1863–1923) is one of the most important Spanish artists of the early 20th century. Though often described as an Impressionist because of his interest in the fleeting effects of colour and light, Sorolla’s experimented with many different styles and refused to align himself with any particular school. His early social realist work, depicting fishermen, peasants and migrant workers, owes much to the dark palette of the Baroque painter Velasquez, while his later beach scenes are effectively Post-Impressionist, with thick paint, distinctive brush strokes and abstracting distortions; his portraits often depend on Fauvist slashes of colour and his garden scenes have an almost abstract Symbolist potency.
Sorolla was painting at a low point in his nation’s history; Spain had recently lost the Spanish American wars, and with them her American colonies. The country was nearly bankrupt and seized with social unrest; idealistic youths were emigrating in great numbers; politicians were accused of corruption and incompetence while artists and writers appeared to be emasculated by the past.
As intellectuals pondered the national identity, Sorolla set out to create a new image for his country. Eschewing the traditional idea of Spain as dark, exotic and mysterious he depicted his homeland as modern, Mediterranean and European. Conspicuously avoiding erotic, religious or historical subjects, he chose instead to celebrate contemporary life – presenting an optimistic picture of vibrant youths, dazzling beaches, quiet gardens and dramatic landscapes.
In 1909, after a wildly successful exhibition in New York – held in a dreary February when his sundrenched images must have been particularly appealing – Sorolla was invited to fill a 3 x 70 metre space in New York’s Hispanic Society. While the Society wanted him to depict key moments from Spain’s illustrious past, Sorolla, reluctant to collude in picturesque clichés of dwarves, dancers and bullfighters, or to promote a wallowing in ancient glory, convinced them to accept a series of portraits celebrating the nation’s geographic and cultural diversity.
He agreed to provide 14 panels depicting local people, in traditional costume, engaged in everyday activities, amid the landscapes that shaped their lives. This ambitious commission necessitated a gruelling programme of travelling round the country in search of locations, seeking out regional artefacts and costumes, convincing local people to pose, then spending long hours in the open air painting his gigantic canvases. The project, entitled ‘Visions of Spain’, consumed seven years of Sorolla’s life, took him from his beloved family for months on end and ultimately exhausted him. It was as an antidote to these grand portraits that Sorolla turned to the garden paintings celebrated in the current exhibition.
The catalogue is edited by Sorolla’s great grand-daughter, who supplies a detailed chronology of the artist’s professional life. There are also essays on the significance of the Alhambra in Sorolla’s time, the role Sorolla played in preserving Spain’s horticultural heritage and the place of gardens in the national consciousness. Sorolla’s early works are considered but the exhibition concentrates on his later garden paintings: Moorish courtyards, royal gardens and the garden he created round his own home in Madrid – now the Sorolla Museum. Though the essays occasionally overlap or repeat information, collectively they place Sorolla’s work within the artistic and intellectual context of the time, frequently referring to the work of critics, poets, writers and other artists of the period.
Sorolla’s first real encounter with gardens was not auspicious. In 1908 he wrote to his wife about the Moorish courtyards of Andalucía: ‘so much marble, so many patios’, and later condemned the gardens of the Alhambra as ‘melancholy little enclosures’. But soon these tranquil spaces worked their magic and he found himself attempting to capture the effect of shade and dazzling sun, focusing as much on shadows and reflections as on the ornamental walls, pools, fountains and arches. Though initially he followed the French Impressionists in animating his garden scenes with decorative women and children, increasingly Sorolla dispensed with the human presence. Eliminating inessentials, he began to create profound, meditative visions, in which the viewer is the privileged inhabitant of these places of refuge and introspection.
Like Monet, Renoir, Cezanne and other artists of the time, Sorolla designed extensive gardens round his house-cum-studio to provide himself with subject matter. Combining the sinewy curves of Art Nouveau sculpture with classical columns and bold Moorish tile-work Sorolla created a space which was at once contemporary, European and Mediterranean. The many paintings he created of this space, the different moods he depicted and the various styles he employed, attest to the importance of his garden to the painter. Indeed one of his final works, Garden of the Sorolla House (1920), depicts the empty wicker chair where Sorolla used to sit and paint; here light transforms the foreground into a blurry, dreamlike wash which seems, with hindsight, an artistic premonition of his own death. In June 1920, while painting in his garden, Sorolla suffered a massive stroke from which he never recovered.
In his time Joaquin Sorolla was a great ambassador for his country. His international success was seen as redeeming the nation’s shame, replacing the image of a primitive, defeated culture with one of a vibrant, modern people. Today Sorolla is remembered, if at all, for his epic ‘Visions of Spain’. This exhibition and catalogue give us an understanding of the man, providing an important insight into the intimate spaces that inspired some of his most poignant works. Both catalogue and exhibition would be of interest to students of early 20th-century art, to garden historians and anyone interested in Hispanic studies.
Sorolla: Gardens of Light by Blanca Pons-Sorolla is published by Ediciones El Viso, Madrid, 2012. 256 pp., 150 colour & 10 mono illus, $50.00. ISBN: 9788495241986
Media credit: Image from Sorolla: Garden of Light by Blanca Pons Sorolla/ Ediciones El Viso