Solar Threads from Spain

Reviving the Light of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida

by Karen L. Mulder

María at La Granja, 1907 The San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, California

While there has rarely been a shortage of critics immortalizing painters who mastered light, or who handled light effects with ethereal finesse, the expertise of Spain’s Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923) elicited rapturous sonnets and earnest panegyrics. Eulogizing Sorolla in 1923, the diplomat and novelist Ramón Peréz de Ayala praised Sorolla’s brushstrokes as “beams of solar threads” emanating from “luminous wellsprings” and virtually melting onto  the canvas. The Craftsman review uncharacterically effused that “this art…is an apotheosis of visble, external [that] rises to positively lyrical heights in its worship of solar radiance.” And, while a state funeral in Spain would be expected for such a favorite son, The New York Herald’s solemn farewell to the “painter-poet of sunlight” lamented: “You would not have your passing leave one stain of darkness on the radiant scene you limned”—as if the press corps and the Spaniard had been the closest of friends.1

Who was this Sorolla, and why did his passing inspire such touching enco- mia in the gritty, clanking metropolis so far from his sunny homeland? Though pleinairistas have never stopped valuing the speed and accuracy of Sorolla’s exquisite brushwork, his legacy beyond Spain from the 1920s onward suffered the same marginalization as that of John Singer Sargent and other realists, until critics finally retracted the ban against naturalism. In this country, Sargent’s reputation rebounded magnificently; Sorolla’s did not. He may have confused the issue by remaining independent of any association with a particular school, even while constantly referring to himself as an “impressionist,” with a small “i.” Sorolla called any modern painter chasing the animating energy of natural light an “impressionist, and a child of Velázquez—the first, the supreme impressionist.”2

Sorolla’s intensive self-education began at Madrid’s Museo del Prado in his teens, sharpened by the same discipline of copying Velázquez, Ribera and Goya that also launched Picasso, among countless others. When journalists invariably cajoled him, in his maturity, to select contemporaries whom he admired, he generously referred to Sargent, William Merritt Chase and, most enthusiastically, the Swede Anders Zorn—all similarly invested in Velázquez as young artists. Sorolla singled out Zorn, also eventually forgotten, as “the one” who most successfully “summed up what we, having Velázquez at home for us to contemplate every day, neither see nor understand because of excessive prejudices.” 3 He also lauded Zorn’s ability to capture the essence of light from his careful observation of nature, rather than studio tricks like sfregazzi or Velázquezatura, “in which others find the means for seeking the appearances, only the appearances, of good painting.” Rubbing glaze over flesh tones with the fingers to impart a soft, brushless texture, or toning a composition by adding thin layers of opaque paint that enhanced depth through a foggy sheen could never equal the immediacy that Zorn and Sorolla achieved by observing, then executing, such effects directly and decisively from nature.

Beginning formal lessons at fourteen, Sorolla rarely experienced a day without sketching or painting until his death at the age of sixty. From sixteen on, he routinely earned top awards at regional competitions in Valencia, his hometown, and then repeatedly captivated jurors at Madrid’s iteration of the Paris Salon. Introduced to Paris in 1885, he found himself more entranced by the fresh naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage and Adolph von Menzel than the strident rhetoric and pseudo-science espoused by Manet, Zola and others battling the Beaux-Arts tradition. A Bellas Artes Prix de Rome scholarship granted him the means to range through Rome, Assisi, Pisa, Florence, Venice and Naples from 1885 to 1889. Though it may seem unbelievable, Sorolla clearly felt more engaged by contemporary plein-air painters from Tuscany than the Renaissance masters.

The Tuscans reveled in the practice of animating small-format working sketches with bold splashes and spontaneous dashes, which Spanish artists like Ignacio Pinazo Camarlench (1849–1916) appropriated and passed on to Sorolla’s generation. The systemic hierarchy that focused solely on the grandes machines overshadowed these rough studies until Daubigny, Corot and others began exhibiting them in the late 1800s. Baudelaire legitimized them as spontaneous expressions of generic “spirituality,” but, for painters, quick takes revealed the artist’s skill and strategy, imparting a visual shorthand packed with information.4 Eventually, sketches became so desirable that students competed for them as favors from their mentors, and artists like Sorolla plastered them onto their studio walls. Quite possibly, Sorolla’s incessant habit of sketching, which resulted in the several thousand images he nicknamed apuntes (jottings), repentes (sudden impulses) or manchas (spots or flecks), instilled a confidence that indelibly affected his trademark bravado and rapid, assured brushwork.

What should have been a formative experience for Sorolla in Italy and elsewhere abroad during the 1880s, however, devolved into an “infertile and aimless” stretch of “lost time,” according to one critic in Eight Essays (1909), the multilingual catalogue prepared for Sorolla’s first major exhibition in the United States.5 Perhaps Sorolla’s typical self-assurance stumbled under the formidable gravity of the Italian Renaissance masters, if not the impenetrable darkness of Caravaggesque tenebrism. In any case, Sorolla’s submission at the 1886 Bellas Artes exhibit in Madrid, an approximation of the Baroque style titled The Burial of Christ, merely attracted honorable mention rather than the expected accolades. Stinging criticisms discredited the composition as “cold” and “correct,” as well as “disappointingly unreal,” inducing the 23-year-old to refuse the award and return, literally, to the drawing board.

In Eight Essays, Sorolla’s most devoted follower and English translator, the American William Starkweather (1879–1969), relayed the artist’s recollection of being deeply frustrated and discouraged after his Italian sojourn, hampered by his inability to locate a style and palette that seemed authentic to him. For a time, Sorolla meekly supported himself and his young family by selling genre paintings through various dealers around Europe. Rather than being buried by what he called the “horrible discussions” concerning The Burial of Christ, the experience strengthened Sorolla’s resolve to paint directly from nature, pursue the most fleeting light effects and free himself from the strictures of convention. Sorolla scraped the chocolate brown shadows from his palette and started fresh with the Impressionists’ beloved violet, which he praised to his students as the greatest innovation since Velázquez.

The excitement surrounding this year’s “Sorolla and America” exhibition, which attempts to reanimate an important facet of Sorolla’s legacy, seems ironic in view of the fact that one of the greatest concentrations of his work has quietly resided right in New York City for more than a century at the Hispanic Society of America. However, it would be safe to say that few visitors to Manhattan put the Society or its neighboring cultural institutions in Washington Heights on their short list of “must-see” destinations.

Nevertheless, “Sorolla and America” represents a triumph for Sorolla’s hard-working great-grandaughter, Blanca Pons-Sorolla, and offers fresh insights from a phalanx of curators at the Hispanic Society, the Prado, the Meadows Museum at Dallas’s Southern Methodist University, the San Diego Museum of Art and Madrid’s Fundación MAPFRE. This exhibition reframes Sorolla’s career in the light of that ever-so-elusive and ever-so-alchemical commodity, American patronage—which entailed the tossing of fistfuls of money across the Atlantic, with the ostensible goal of securing viable connections to refined European culture. Sorolla’s popularity in the United States peaked exuberantly immediately after the 1909 exhibition, bankrolled by generous patrons who sought to immortalize their lineage through portraits, or to bask in the rays of Sorolla’s exotic sun-drenched Iberian shores. He became eminently collectible.

At the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, as one of twenty-three Spaniards exhibited on the red brocade walls of the Petit Palais amidst an overwhelming cadre of 304 French artists, Sorolla took the gold for Sad Inheritance! (1899). Beyond the art, the 1900 Paris world’s fair gloried in all the misplaced expectations for a better century to come, thanks to the modern technologies that automated moving sidewalks, Loïe Fuller’s “chromo-kineticism,” the sparkling and radiant Palais de l’Electricité and new-fangled “cinema theatre.” Monet and Rodin, however, were among the progressive artists who kept their distance from the 1900 Exposition, derided by Monet as an “odious bazaar.” Each retaliated with his own opening at Galerie Durand-Ruel and the Pavilion de l’Alma, respectively, shortly after the Expo vacated the Champs de Mars. Perhaps Sorolla’s in-between status as neither a refusé nor a traditionalist finds its metaphorical parallel in the strange architectural mélange at this Expo, strung out between waning Victorian eclecticism, pronounced national and regional styles, hallucinogenic Art Nouveau forays epitomized by Guimard’s reptilian Metro décor and the persistent, stately presence of Beaux-Arts neo-classicism in many national pavilions, including that of the United States. This epoch was searching for a signature style. Sorolla was an artist searching for his own voice.

Ayamonte, 1919, The Hispanic Society of America, New York CityAt first glance, Sad Inheritance!—initially titled Children of Pleasure—presents a disorganized flock of small, naked boys frolicking cheerily in the sun and waves, tended by a hunched and hovering black-robed priest. Given a second glance, each glistening body seems oddly twisted, as if extracted from a merciless catalogue of deformities. Crutches emerge, and the whole swimming party seems uncomfortably shoved into the forefront and edges of the com- position. In the Guggenheim catalogue 1900: Art at the Crossroads (2000), the irreverent but passionate art historian Robert Rosenblum caricatured Sorolla’s priest as a “dark blot in the light” and freighted these debilitated children with a role as living editorials against the syphilitic excesses of their parents.6 Sorolla’s impulse may have been more empathetic. For one thing, Sorolla had been orphaned at two, when his parents succumbed to a cholera epidemic. For another, Sad Inheritance! constituted the artist’s fourth and decidedly final foray into the wrenching art of social commentary. “I suffered horribly when I painted it. I had to force myself,” Sorolla admitted to one journalist.7 This painting eventually landed in the prominent collection of the American financier Thomas Fortune Ryan, who lent it to Sorolla’s first major American exhibitions from 1909 to 1911, before donating it to New York’s Church of the Ascension—where it hung in relative obscurity until Sotheby’s auctioned it to a Spanish bidder in 1981.

In mid-career, Sorolla trained his discerning eyes on beaches, brawny fishermen, native Spaniards sporting regional garb, cherished landscapes and intimate studies of his wife and children, all bathed in the idiosyncratic vernacular of his oozing strokes, liquid flashes, slashes, dappled dashes and joyous puddles of gorgeous, spontaneous color highlights. Return from Fishing (1892), Evening Sun (1903), Beaching the Boats (1915) and Ayamonte: The Tuna Catch (1919) chart the gradual refinement of Sorolla’s exacting tonal determinations in one of his favorite settings, the littoral zone.

Throughout the 1890s, Chase and Robert Henri sent Sorolla a steady stream of students from the New York School of Art and the Art Students League of New York, seconding Sorolla’s ironic advice to avoid what he called “la españolada”—the stereotypical treatment of picturesque Spanish subjects. While he discouraged picaresque genre paintings featuring baked stucco hovels, gypsies in full flight, street urchins or regional costuming, Sorolla unapologetically marketed vignettes that featured exactly such content, which culminated in the huge mural project for the Hispanic Society, “Visions of Spain.” Did his authentic connection to the land entitle or excuse his unresisting, passionate gaze over all that was Spain?

Sorolla painted at a prodigious, galloping rate, completing incredibly astute “color note” sketches in less than an hour, formal portraits within four or five hours and some monumental compositions in a month or so. The complexity and glowing bravura of Beach of Valencia by Morning Light (1908) evince an uncontestable genius, animated by flecks of glistening water and hot jabs of raking sunlight. A certain visual satisfaction settles in the soul upon noticing how discretely the artist differentiates the textures of canvas sails or shades from the restless motions of the waves. Ayamonte: The Tuna Catch (1919) encapsulates the pinnacle moment of Sorolla’s ability to simultaneously freeze and release the energy of natural light effects with loose and stabbing brushstrokes, anchored by the artist’s increasingly confident depth and modeling, clearly evident in the light-infused sailors to the right of the composition.

Starkweather summarized the arc of Sorolla’s maturing style as a progression from darker colors and definitive compositing to less deliberate arrangements that revealed greater certainty and finality in execution, leading to “furious assaults” that seemed composed with no deliberation whatsoever, but resulted in what he called “luminous splendor.” Mostly, however, Sorolla’s flickering brush ate up light in whatever form it appeared. For instance, Starkweather recounted his amazement upon seeing Sorolla “entranced before a pile of manure covered with straw litter, the whole a sparkle in morning light. ‘Stupendous, colossal, magnificent!,’ he said with customary enthusiasm. ‘I am going to paint it!’” Starkweather viewed this mantra as “a succinct expression of the man’s whole soul.”8

Sorolla’s fortunes in America paralleled the vigorous campaigns of its wealthiest citizens to drag European culture, by whatever means necessary, into American halls. This drive, according to 1950s-era Met curator Albert Gardner, induced rich Americans to spend more money on art between 1880 and 1910 than any other group in the world.9 Moreover, Sorolla’s star happened to rise on the cultural horizon during the peak of the Spanish Colonial Revival. At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where Sorolla’s

¡Otra Margarita! elicited much acclaim, Gustav Stickley debuted the humble Mission-style chair, and the California pavilion proudly brandished its unapologetic pastiche of Spanish Revival styles, imitating recognizable monuments like the Santa Barbara and Carmel missions—which certainly contrasted against the White City’s gleaming plaster-and-straw neoclassical façades.

A patron of the highest order, the multimillionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan (1851–1928) escaped rural Virginia in 1868 for New York with just $100 in his pocket and ultimately became the tenth wealthiest man in the nation. In 1914, a New York Times “Art & Life” feature nicknamed Ryan’s expansive Italian Renaissance manse at 858 Fifth Avenue “the American Louvre,” home to the equivalent of more than half a million dollars in Sorolla paintings, accompanied by priceless Tiepolos, Donatellos, Dürers, Rodins, Houdons and various old masters. J. Paul Getty ended up with thirteen Sorollas when Ryan’s collection was auctioned off in 1932. The razing of Ryan’s magnificent personal Louvre virtually obliterated his high profile legacy as a prominent arts patron and with it, important clues about Sorolla’s success in America.

Attempts to organize solo exhibitions at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and the Art Institute of Chicago fell through miserably, making Sorolla reticent to press for other American venues. The pivotal event that launched Sorolla’s lucrative turn occurred in London, during the artist’s 1908 solo exhibition of 278 works at the Grafton Galleries. His art attracted the admiration of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Zorn, Sargent and even history painters such as Edward Poynter, then president of the Royal Academy— among others whom Sorolla revered as the “colossi” of the painting world.

Although they did not meet then, Sorolla’s irrepressible brio indelibly struck the Hispanic scholar and benefactor nonpareil, Archer Milton Huntington (1870–1955). When Huntington dangled the possibility of an opening at his new Hispanic Society of America in New York, Sorolla ecstatically accepted. Thus began an exchange that would occupy and sometimes fetter Sorolla’s inherently free spirit for more than a decade, and more importantly, secure his international reputation and commercial success for the rest of his life.

On Huntington’s first tour of Europe at the age of twelve, he decided that he wanted to live in a museum after touring the Louvre and London’s National Gallery. He also purchased his first painting in emulation of his mother, Arabella, a sophisticated collector who assembled one of the most important early twentieth-century stockpiles of art, much of which ended up at the Metropolitan and her nephew Henry’s Huntington Library in California. Visiting Spain from 1892 onward, retracing El Cid’s route, Archer, in his diary, reveals his obsession “to know Spain as Spain and so express her—in a museum. It is about all I can do. If I can make a poem of a museum it will be easy to read.”10 His stepfather’s estate endowed him with a robust inheritance by 1900, and Huntington wasted no time employing this lucre to acquire entire libraries from Spanish grandees, like the Marquis of Jerez de los Caballeros, who were forced to sell the family’s collection to prop up their dissipating dynasties.

Beach of Valencia by Morning Light, 1908, The Hispanic Society of America, New York City

Though he never actually lived in a museum, Huntington realized his greatest dream in 1904 by founding the Hispanic Society of America. He housed his passions in a marble paean to American patronage with a complex of eight Beaux-Arts neo-Renaissance palazzos ringing the plaza at Audubon Terrace, on the site of John James Audubon’s old farm. The entire site, designed to house the Numismatic Society, the Museum of the American Indian, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Academy of Art, as well as the Hispanic Society, showcased the architectural acumen of Cass Gilbert, Stanford White’s son Lawrence and Archer’s cousin Charles, and the sculptural expertise of Huntington’s wife, Anna Hyatt, whose equine sculptures elegantly punctuate the open exterior spaces. Ultimately, Huntington’s venture assembled the greatest collection of Hispanica outside of Spain, comprising 800 paintings, 6,000 watercolors, 15,000 prints, 15,000 rare books, 175,000 photos, 200,000 manuscripts and 250,000 research books.

During the 1909 exhibition’s two-month run, 179,000 visitors circulated through the Society’s terracotta arches and carmine wallpapered galleries, eager to assess 356 Sorolla paintings. He became the man of the hour, accepting commissions for at least twenty-eight leading socialites and cultural icons, among them Aldriches, Morgans, Huntingtons, Biddles and even the jovial and jowly President Taft. This patronage assured the success of further presentations in Boston, Buffalo and Chicago, ultimately resulting in sales by 1911 that amounted to $113,000 (about $2.6 million in today’s currency). This gave Sorolla more than enough income to build his dream house in Madrid, now the Museo Sorolla.

Huntington’s ecstatic report to his mother, Arabella, described how “stealthily” the show gained New York’s approval. “It was called a triumph,” he reported. “Everywhere the air was full of the miracle, the eternal talk of ‘sunlight.’ Nothing like it had ever happened in New York.” Through it all, Huntington observed, “the little creator sat surprised, overwhelmed, yet simple and without vanity, while I translated to him the rising tide of press enthusiasm.” The Boston Globe effused over the subsequent Copley Society exhibition as “the best ever seen in the city” for its “vivid coloring, luminosity, and audac- ity,” predictably comparing Sorolla to Frank Benson and the Boston School.11

Sorolla graciously took every opportunity to dispel characterizations of American art as the clumsy venture of a cultural upstart, drawing attention to Sargent, Whistler, Melchers and Chase as true transmitters of the best in European painting. In the “Sorolla and America” catalogue, art historian Elizabeth Boone makes compelling comparisons between Chase and Sorolla, who often shared students, but surprisingly, few have yet taken on the obvious parallels between Sorolla and his close acquaintance Sargent in topic, technique and finesse. Sorolla made many champions with his repeated assertions in The New York Times and elsewhere that Sargent was America’s greatest painter, and that America was “in a better position than any other country to arrive at whatever point it may desire in art.” He told several hundred young painters in a Chicago master class: “You have all the traditions, but you are not obsessed by them.” In California’s Evening News, he declared: “Here I see and feel everywhere the energy and the eagerness of youth, the spirit of original advancement, yet no less the willingness to receive. I say that American Art is not only prepared to come into its own—it has already arrived.”12 But, in fact, Sorolla had arrived first.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911, The Hispanic Society of America, New York CityHuntington, who sent Sorolla on research forays throughout Spain to augment the Society’s collection, also commissioned him to provide fourteen monumental murals that featured the provinces of Spain, accompanied by twenty-five portraits of prominent Spaniards. Upon delivery, Sorolla would receive $150,000 (roughly, $3.7 million today). He spent six months working on the first segment, Castilla, in 1913. At 138-by-548 inches, it had been designed as part of a continuous frieze until, midstream, Huntington switched formats to a choppier scheme of fourteen separate panels. Sorolla completed the last segment, Ayamonte: The Tuna Catch, in 1919, after thirty painting sessions within two months’ time. By the time the panels were actually installed and accessible to viewers in 1926, the public no longer knew or cared about Sorolla, and the thrall of the Spanish revival had begun to wane in the East. When Spain finally saw Sorolla’s massive labor of love at the 2009 Prado exhibition, these panels attracted almost half a million visitors—more than any other show in the last decade. One hundred years earlier, Sorolla’s first biographer, Rafael Doménech, trumpeted Sorolla’s international fame as an achievement that brought glory back to a nation that had lost pieces of its colonial empire to the United States, including the Philippines, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Doménech inspired other Spaniards to appreciate the poetry of Sorolla’s works, and to receive his love sonnets that “concentrated all the breadth of the race, the full intensity of the aesthetic emotion, the character and the expression of this land, seldom understood and continually disguised from outside.”13

“Sorolla and America” travels from Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Museum in Dallas, to San Diego’s Museum of Art (May 31–August 28, 2014) and on to Madrid’s Fundación MAPFRE in September. Spearheaded by the artist’s perseverent great-grand- daughter, this presentation of 160 paintings, apuntes and drawings constitutes her lengthy labor of love.



  1. Ayala in E. Quesada Dorador, Ramón Peréz de Ayala y las artes plasticas (Granada, 1991), p. 32; Katherine Root, “Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida: A Modern Spanish Master,” The Craftsman 16, no. 1 (April 1909), p. 22; Eliot White, The New York Herald (August 14, 1923), p. 8.

  2. W.E.B. Starkweather, “Joaquín Sorolla: The Man and His Work,” in A. Beruete, Eight Essays (Hispanic Society, 1909), vol. 1, p. 47.

  3. J. Sorolla y Bastida, “Apunte sobre Zorn,La Lectura 3, vol. 1 (1903), pp. 571–72. Italics added.

  4. María López Fernández, “Looking Is Painting: Jottings, Splashes, and Color Notes of Joaquín Sorolla” in Sorolla and America (Madrid: Ediciones El Viso, 2013), p. 223.

  5. Christian Brinton, “Sorolla at the Hispanic Society,” International Studio 37, no. 145 (March 1909), p. xii.

  6. Robert Rosenblum, “Art in 1900: Twilight or Dawn?,” in 1900: Art at the Crossroads (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2000), p. 37.

  7. T. R. Ybarra, “The American Success of a Great Spanish Painter,” The World’s Work 18, no. 1 (May 1909), p. 115.

  8. Starkweather, ibid., p. 57.

  9. Cristina Domenech, “Critical Fortune,” in Sorolla and America (Madrid: Ediciones El Viso, 2013), p. 283.

  10. Mitchell Codding, “Sorolla and the Hispanic Society of America” in Sorolla and America (Madrid: Ediciones El Viso, 2013), p. 57.

  11. “Stands Out Distinctly: Sorolla’s Paintings are Unlike Others,” The Boston Globe (April 21, 1909).

  12. E.A. Nye, “Heart to Heart Talks,” The Evening News (San Jose, Cal., May 26, 1909).

  13. Rafael Doménech, “La vida artistica: Sorolla en los Estados Unidos,El Liberal (Madrid, February 1909), quoted in Blanca Pons-Sorolla, “Huntington, Sorolla’s Patron in America: The 1909 Exhibitions,” in Sorolla and America (Madrid: Ediciones El Viso, 2013), p. 27.


American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2014, Volume 31, Number 2