El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, Sorolla, Picasso... So goes a list of top Spanish painters from across the centuries. Perhaps one of those five names, though, will stand out – Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) – and it’ll do so because, beyond Spain, he’s not really much known.
A Sorolla retrospective at Madrid’s Prado Museum attracted almost half a million visitors in 2009, making it the most popular show at the institution this millennium. Contrast that to the UK, where just seven of his paintings are in public collections and the retrospective that opens at the National Gallery next week is his first exhibition on British soil since 1908.
Born in the port city of Valencia, Sorolla lost both his parents to cholera aged two. By his teens, he was exhibiting in the esteemed “Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes” in Madrid, and the painting for which he eventually won its first prize is on show: Another Marguerite! (1892).
Inspired by a real-life incident, it depicts a desolate young woman sitting handcuffed in a train carriage with two Civil Guards behind her. She has been arrested for killing her illegitimate baby. The tight, wooden space, painted in sombre browns and greys, resembles a prison cell, and Sorolla shows great sympathy towards his subject. Her downcast gaze is a haunting mixture of trauma and shame.
In the 1890s, Sorolla and his Spanish peers painted a number of social realist scenes such as this – reflecting a decade of political and social unrest, when their prime minister was assassinated and the Spanish empire all but disappeared with the loss of Cuba.
Sorolla’s career, by contrast, thrived, and he soon became inundated with requests for portraits. His sitters included William Howard Taft, the US president; Alfonso XIII, the king of Spain; and José Echegaray, the Nobel Prize-winning writer.
In truth, his portraits aren’t great. Sorolla’s finest works are his beach scenes. These portals to the Mediterranean are sunny, ecstatic celebrations of life by the sea. He painted countless stretches of Spain’s coast, in a remarkable variety of styles. One such style was Impressionism (Sorolla having studied in Paris in the 1880s), and in Afternoon at the Beach in Valencia he captured a group of boys playing in the sea. Seen from a slightly elevated viewpoint, they all but dissolve in heat haze, while the sunlit water becomes a near-abstract passage of white dabs and dashes.
Even when his subject matter wasn’t altogether agreeable – as is the case in The Smugglers (1919), of contraband tobacco being heaved up cliffs into Ibiza – one’s principal reaction is still delight. Which of us wouldn’t want to jump into that rich, turquoise sea below?
Sorolla’s beach scenes such as these are worth the entrance fee alone, and doubtless his paintings of lush gardens will prove popular too.
All of which begs the question: why is he so little-known today? Surely it’s because, by the end of his career, art had left Sorolla behind. Spearheaded by his own compatriot, Picasso, modernism arrived at the start of the 20th Century – complete with the artistic revolutions of the Fauvists, Cubists and Futurists. By comparison, Sorolla’s beautiful visions of seasides and gardens seemed old-hat.
With the distance of time, this exhibition allows us to make a more reliable assessment of Sorolla’s talent. He was never quite in Picasso’s league. Nor, for that matter, El Greco’s, Velázquez’s or Goya’s. But, then, very few have been. This show reveals a dazzling artist with ample ability to make waves.
From Monday to July 7; nationalgallery.org.uk; 020 7747 2885