Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 24, 2010
José Luis Diez and Javier Barón Thaidigsmann Joaquín Sorolla New York: Thames and Hudson in association with Museo Nacional del Prado, 2009. 256 pp.; 300 color ills. Cloth $95.00 (9780500976937)
Exhibition schedule: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, May 26–September 6, 2009

Spain’s Museo del Prado has begun to pay attention to the nineteenth century. Such welcome interest first became evident in 2007, when an ambitious expansion provided space for a comprehensive introduction to The Nineteenth Century in the Prado, an exhibition and catalogue that documented some ninety-five seldom-displayed works from the museum’s collection (click here for review). Sorolla, 1863–1923, an exhibition of 102 paintings by Valencian artist Joaquín Sorolla, follows on this success and stands, one hopes, as one of many shows that will bring nineteenth-century Spanish painting to the attention of art historians outside the Peninsula. The catalogue is available in both Spanish and English editions.

Scholars will welcome the Prado’s decision to begin its exploration of nineteenth-century art with Sorolla, for research on this painter has been hampered by the terms of families, estates, and bequests. The artist’s widow donated Sorolla’s Madrid home studio, as well as all its contents, to the state in 1925, specifying her only son as its first director. Administered by an advisory board including family members who equated control with promotion and protection of the artist’s reputation, the Museo Sorolla carefully restricted access to its holdings. In the early 1990s, graduate students such as myself were politely, but firmly, informed by then-Director Florencio de Santa-Ana that the archives were closed to scholars without the family’s permission. Thankfully, the Sorolla Museum is now allowing its extensive archival material to be published; of particular use are the three volumes of letters exchanged between the artist, his friend Pedro Gil, and his wife Clotilde (Epistolarios de Joaquín Sorolla, Rubí: Anthropos, 2007–2009). Victor Lorente Sorolla and Blanca Pons-Sorolla, members of the museum’s advisory board and grandson and great granddaughter of the artist, are among the editors of these important new publications.

Sorolla’s primary U.S. patron, Archer Milton Huntington, set up his own set of rules that, as in Spain, led to restrictions on access to the artist’s work. In 1911, Huntington commissioned A Vision of Spain, a monumental mural cycle, for the library of his newly founded Hispanic Society of America in northern Manhattan. The cycle, consisting of fourteen oil-on-canvas views of Spain’s diverse people and regions, is widely recognized as Sorolla’s magnum opus, a work to which he devoted much of the final decade of his life. But conditions in Huntington’s bequest prevented the museum from loaning this or any other works in the Hispanic Society to other institutions. As perceptions of Upper Manhattan changed, fewer and fewer people made a stop at West 155th Street part of their cultural itinerary when visiting New York.

In recent years the need for expensive conservation work allowed the museum to move the paintings off site and loan them to institutions able to conserve them. A group of studies for the mural cycle, as well as a series of Sorolla portraits depicting illustrious Spanish intellectuals, were included in Sorolla y la Hispanic Society: Una visión de la España de entresiglos, a large exhibition produced in Spain in 1998. The catalogue for this exhibition (Madrid: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 1998) included transcriptions of the correspondence between Sorolla, Huntington, and the Hispanic Society, in addition to selections relating to Sorolla from Huntington’s diary. The murals themselves were conserved more recently thanks to the patronage of the Valencia-based savings bank Bancaja and subsequently sent on a tour of Spain, where they attracted considerable attention in Valencia, Seville, Malaga, Barcelona, and Bilbao (Sorolla: Visión de España: Colección de la Hispanic Society of America, Valencia: Fundación Bancaja, 2007). The murals’ tour ended in Madrid, where they provided an impressive climax to this current exhibition. The murals have since returned to New York, where they were reinstalled in the newly renovated galleries of the Hispanic Society (thanks also to Bancaja) in May 2010.

Given these conditions, the Prado’s team of nineteenth-century art curators, José Luis Díez and Javier Barón, are among the few who could pull off an undertaking as ambitious as Sorolla, 1863–1923. Most, if not all, of the artist’s key works were included in the exhibition, and the curators were able to borrow paintings from museums and collections in England, France, Italy, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and the United States. Díez and Barón also provide the catalogue’s lengthy introductory essay. “Joaquín Sorolla, Painter” begins with a chronological overview of the artist’s career and painting methods, then proceeds to a discussion of his paintings organized by genre: religious, history, and social painting; genre scenes; beach scenes; portraits; nudes; landscapes; the mural cycle A Vision of Spain; decorative painting; still life; and illustration. The methodology is traditional, and a bit too concerned for my taste with the promotion of artistic genius. Even so, the authors had access to resources at three powerful institutions (the Museo Sorolla, the Hispanic Society, and the Prado), and the result is the most comprehensive survey of the life and oeuvre of the painter from Valencia currently available in English. Sorolla was one of the most prolific and successful Spanish painters of the late nineteenth century; he exhibited his work internationally and maintained relations with notable artists throughout Europe and the United States, Léon Bonnat, John Singer Sargent, and Anders Zorn among them. Clearly, discussions of nineteenth-century art are incomplete without consideration of the Spanish contribution.

Three shorter essays follow the introduction. “Sorolla and the Spanish Painting of his Time,” by Francisco Javier Pérez Rojas, covers similar territory as the introduction, with greater emphasis on the artist’s precursors, contemporaries, and followers in Spain. This text also points to the regional nature of Spanish painting by paying particular attention to Sorolla’s status as a painter of the “Valencian school.” Carlos Reyero provides an essay titled “Sorolla and the International Painting of his Day,” which makes good use of French and Spanish criticism to reflect upon the historiography of Spain’s relationship to Impressionism. Reyero then uses his essay to travel from place to place, moving from Italy (where Sorolla studied in the mid-1880s) to France, England, Scandinavia, Russia, Belgium, and Holland, and finally the United States. In each of these sections, Reyero points to documented relations between Sorolla and artists from these regions, shared admiration for the work of Old Masters or contemporary colleagues, and subjects or stylistic approaches held in common. The essay concludes by touching upon Sorolla’s relationship to contemporary sculpture and possible links to the Nabis and Fauves.

Pons-Sorolla, author of the final essay, “The Artistic Personality of Sorolla,” articulates her view at the beginning of her text: “Renewed consideration of the figure of Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923) from today’s perspective bears out the undeniable quality of his oeuvre and the stature of the man as painter. The passage of time, far from eroding his prestige, has consolidated and enlarged it” (177). The usefulness of her essay, which portrays the painter as an industrious worker, devoted student of Velázquez, and confident young professional, lies in the use of as yet unpublished correspondence, specifically letters written by Sorolla to his lawyer Emilio Gutiérrez Gamero. One hopes these, as well as any other letters exchanged between the artist and his correspondents, will soon be published in their entirety.

With excellent quality reproductions, including many details, catalogue entries with provenance and exhibition histories provided by a team including Barón, Díez, Pérez Rojas, and Pons-Sorolla, in addition to Carlos G. Navarro, José Luis Alcaide, Marcus Burke, and Roberta Díaz Pena, and a bibliography, the catalogue is certain to be an indispensable resource for historians eager to integrate this artist’s work into their study of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Questions abound: How might Sorolla’s social realist themes of the 1890s relate to class or gender relations of that time, both in Spain and internationally? What can be learned by reading his paintings in relation to popular illustrations or literary texts depicting related subjects? Do Sorolla’s beach scenes help us to understand contemporary Spanish concerns about ecological change or North African activity in the Mediterranean? Why did Sorolla’s work achieve such acclaim at that key moment of national crisis known in the United States as the Spanish-American War of 1898? How might the Bourbon monarchy, Generation of ‘98 intellectuals, or even Spanish military officers such as Francisco Franco have used Sorolla’s images to promote their own national visions for Spain? And do comparative studies such as the recent Sargent/Sorolla exhibition and catalogue (Madrid: Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2006), produced by an international team of scholars, offer productive modes of expanding the monographic exhibition formula? Possibilities for future work are indeed rich, as rich as scholars, freed from inherited dictates, decide to make them.

M. Elizabeth Boone
Professor, Department of Art and Design, University of Alberta

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