Illuminating the sea with memories: Joaquín Sorolla through light and colour 


It was a dreary, rainy winter day in Madrid when I went to the Sorolla Museum to see Strolling along the seashore (1909). Hung up high on his studio wall, the ladies’ white, flowing, organdie dresses were reflecting the sunlight of a distant summer day. 

Joaquín Sorolla was born in Valencia in 1863 and buried there in 1923. As a young artist, Sorolla’s ambition brought him across the continent, particularly to Rome and Paris, the sepulchre of the old masters and the cradle of the avant-garde. With opportunities to meet expatriate and foreign artists, Sorolla was inspired to depict realism with his personal brush strokes, inheriting those of Velázquez and Manet. He didn’t forsake naturalism, but transcended it, with a sentimentalising tendency similar to those of Monet and John Singer Sergeant in his landscapes and portraits.

Sorolla’s brush strokes are bold but tender, borne by time but frozen in it, or rather, agents of it. Sorolla loved the effects of light and simply light itself, almost obsessively, and displayed an aesthetic optimism in nearly all of his paintings. Like the impressionists, he drew many of his works ‘en plein air’, in defiance of transience. He was always taking photos of the ephemeral beauty before him, but instead of with a camera, his paintbrushes, memories and an incorruptible heart of joy. 

Sorolla mobilised his fragile strokes to turn a delicate moment into an imperishable eternity

His incorruptibly joyous heart had always been drawn to the beaches of Valencia in immaculate summer heat. Simply the Sorolla Museum alone, which once was the artist’s family residence, houses more than a dozen of paintings of beach scenes. Another eye-catcher is The Horse’s Bath (1909). A boy with nothing on but a straw hat reining a horse wet with seawater onto the indefinite shoreline. Both of them soaked in sunlight, as with the sails in the background, their outlines blurred into the almost transparent blue.

There is so much liquidity present in this picture, just beyond the sea itself. The boy and the horse’s shadows look as if melted into a puddle of black on the beach. The sand is lacking any granular texture, as if one with the water. The only truly photorealistic subjects are the boy and the horse, in suspended animation radiating nothing but contentment. Such unspeakable contentment from breathing the balmy saline air alone was illumined by nothing but colours on a crusted palette. 

The following summer I revisited Madrid to see the sunlit Parc El Retiro but didn’t go into the neighbouring Museo Nacional del Prado even though there was a Guido Reni exhibition. Something didn’t sit right with me to see his paintings in a dim-lit basement, knowing that a thunderstorm would hit Madrid later in the afternoon. So I took a long stroll westward, with my back against Valencia and its calling beaches; all the way to the Royal Palace above the droughty Castilian red soil, just to see a temporary Sorolla exhibition, Sorolla Through Light

He didn’t forsake naturalism, but transcended it

This exhibition was held as a centennial retrospective of Sorolla, immersively displaying 24 paintings, most of which had never been exhibited before. I have my highlights each from one of the three thematic sections in the exhibition:

Family Portrait: María in the Gardens of La Granja (1907). Moving from the Valencian beaches to the greens of arid Segovia, Sorolla abstracted his depictions of blue seas and white sands into concepts comprised solely of light and colours. The central pond becomes the sea, the gravelled walk acts as the sand. Morphing topologically, the illumination and impression still remain unchanged.

Royal Portraits and Gardens: First Garden in Casa Sorolla (1918-1919). The garden was embellished by primavera, flowers blooming to disprove my memories of wintry gloom. And something as simple as a marble-white foundation lit by sunlight could spark such joy; it made me longed to be somewhere I didn’t think I’d want to revisit. 

The Sea: Fishing Nets (1893). Sunlight trickles down the white walls illuminating flowers in fierce bloom. The networks aren’t just pattern fabric woven into shape by joint effort of the young woman and the old man in the foreground, but the chequered shadows of the arbour. A young man in a straw hat waits outside the garden gate, where the sea far in the background is but a minuscule blue segment. The composition is perfectly Mediterranean; everything signalling the inextricable presence of the sea. This is perhaps one of Sorolla’s most poetic and symbolically harmonious paintings.

He was always taking photos of the ephemeral beauty before him, but instead of with a camera, his paintbrushes

Regardless of the subject, Sorolla mobilised his fragile strokes to turn a delicate moment into an imperishable eternity. That’s what makes Impressionism or Luminism – or whatever you wish to call it – an art form made from the ‘here’ and ‘now’ to transcend space and time. As long as there is light, there is art, there is memory.

When I left the palace it seemed the thunderstorm had come and gone. Far away at the Casa de Campo crepuscular rays beamed through the breaking clouds. Light brought colours to the murky landscape. I stole an eternal piece of summer. 

Image credit: Fishing Nets (1893) by Joaquín Sorolla from WikiArt

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