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21|09|12 The new Sorolla Gallery

The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum is to open a gallery devoted to painter Joaquín Sorolla, thanks to the disinterested cooperation of private individuals who have loaned, on deposit, 22 paintings by the artist from their collections.

A permanent gallery displaying a selection of works by Sorolla is to be added to the galleries on the first floor of the old Museum building showing art from the early decades of the 20th century. The Sorolla initiative has been made possible by the addition of paintings from these deposits, agreed for an initial three-year period, which may subsequently be extended. Of the seven paintings selected for this first presentation in gallery 25, five are major artworks from the large body of paintings by Joaquín Sorolla (Valencia, 1863–Madrid, 1923) produced during the artist’s frequent visits to the Basque Country.

Greatly enhancing Sorolla’s presence in the Museum collection, until now comprising just three major paintings, Kissing the Relic (1893) (gallery 18), Portrait of the Painter Mañanós (1903) (gallery 19) and Portrait of Unamuno (c. 1912) (gallery 29), the new arrivals are in themselves an important raft of works by one of the leading Spanish artists of the late 19th- and early 20th centuries. They also augment the Museum’s holdings of Basque art of the same period, in particular works by Ignacio Zuloaga (Eibar, Gipuzkoa, 1870–Madrid, 1945), 8 of whose finest paintings are in the Museum collection, together with a number of drawings and the emblematic painting Victim of the Fiesta (1910), in deposit from the Hispanic Society of New York. Both high-profile artists at the turn of the century, Sorolla and Zuloaga enjoyed early critical praise and major international acclaim, with many exhibitions and commissions in Paris, Berlin, London and the USA.

Sorolla in the Basque Country

In 1889, on a return journey from Rome, where he had become friendly with the city’s large colony of Basque artists, Sorolla discovered the Basque Country. After a stop in Paris, he spent a few days in San Sebastián. He was to renew this relatively early acquaintance on a number of occasions until 1910, making short visits, often on his way to Paris, which he spent sketching and painting small-scale works. On the coast overlooking the Bay of Biscay he found a humid light and a range of green and grey hues markedly different from the ones characteristic of more southerly beaches. An additional attraction at the time was that, ever since Queen Isabel II had decided to spend her summers at Zarautz, the beaches of the northern coast had been a magnet in summer for the Royal Family, the aristocracy and the upper middle classes; here, in the elegant, refined atmosphere of summer leisure, Sorolla found new motifs for his painting and a large clientele anxious to see and acquire his works. From then on, he returned regularly, almost always accompanied by his family.

In the summer of 1906 Sorolla set up in Biarritz and then San Sebastián to paint beaches and coastal scenes. In 1910 he went to Zarautz, where he portrayed his family on the beach and, in response to some changeable weather, painted interior scenes featuring fishermen drinking. The three paintings The Drunk, Grilling Sardines and The Cider Drinker, all part of the deposit now on view in Museum gallery 25, are from this period.

In 1911 he spent his first summer holiday in San Sebastián after returning from St. Louis and Chicago, where the Hispanic Society of New York had organised a highly successful second travelling exhibition. In 1912 he spent the first fortnight of July in Biarritz painting the portraits of Archer M. Huntington, founder of the New York-based Hispanic Society of America, and his wife. The rest of the summer he spent in San Sebastián, from where he made excursions to sketch local people in the Roncal valley, part of the preliminaries for the panel dedicated to Navarra for the Hispanic Society. He then spent the first fortnight of September that year painting in the coastal village of Lekeitio, not far from Bilbao.

He returned to San Sebastián in September 1913 to meet King Alfonso XIII. In 1914 he was back again with his family to finish off the painting of the Basque Country –Skittles, Gipuzkoa– again for the Hispanic Society. He spent the summer of 1917 with his family at Villa Sorolla, on the road to the lighthouse at the foot of Mt. Igueldo at the west end of the bay at San Sebastián. He spent the following summer there too, busily sketching and painting beach scenes and the surroundings of the city, and twenty or so loose, relaxed works on the theme of the breakwater with Mt. Ulía in the background provide differing views of the sea and the coastal landscape.

His family took the artist, now seriously ill, back to Villa Sorolla in 1920 and 1921 for what would be his final visits before his death, at his daughter Maria’s house, in Cercedilla (Madrid) in 1923.

Sorolla Gallery (The paintings)

1– The Drunk. Zarauz, 1910
Oil on canvas. 115 x 140 cm

2– Grilling Sardines. Zarauz, 1910
Oil on canvas. 142 x 205 cm

3– The Cider Drinker. Lequeitio, 1910
Oil on canvas. 167 x 115 cm

Sorolla began to paint the beaches of the Bay of Biscay around 1900, being particularly drawn to the beach at San Sebastián. The city was then the summer residence of the Royal Family and the aristocracy, which gave him the opportunity to portray elegant ladies under the northern light, using a range of colours very different from the ones to be found on the beaches of his native Valencia. He exhibited these works in New York in 1909 with great success, and in summer 1910 he took his family to Zarautz, Queen Isabel II’s summer residence, for a new painting campaign and in search of new motifs.

But bad weather that year prevented him from doing much work on the beach, so he decided to produce some large-scale paintings featuring sailors in taverns. Foremost in this group of works, some 25 counting sketches and finished paintings, are the three presented here, which reflect a rather singular moment in the artist’s career. Painting these local characters prompted Sorolla to a kind of return to his early phase as an artist, when he had clearly been attuned to the realist painting of the 17th-century Spanish school and to Flemish and Dutch painting, which abounded in this sort of genre theme of taverns and their down-at-heel clientele. The direct expressiveness and the restrained colouring used for these popular settings and characters make for some vivid, highly expressive scenes of the sort to be found in the groups at Zarautz and the solitary cider drinker in Lekeitio.

4.– Maria painting, 1905
Oil on canvas. 100 x 50 cm

Sorolla’s family portraits (a major part of his oeuvre) give a clear idea of his qualities as a portrait artist and of the way his style developed over the years. He often painted his wife Clotilde and their three children, Maria, Elena and Joaquín, either in portraits or as the central characters in genre scenes or portrayals of daily life. This painting shows Sorolla’s eldest daughter, Maria, painting. She took up painting when still a child and her activity gave Sorolla great satisfaction. The work also shows how seriously Maria took her father’s advice to paint outdoors. Several surviving photographs and other paintings, including one entitled Maria painting at El Pardo (1907), show her at the easel en plein air.

5.– Girls in San Sebastián, 1912
Oil on canvas. 92 x 80 cm

In the summer of 1912 Sorolla was in San Sebastián, where he painted fifty or so studies of its beaches, gardens and views. Here he neatly catches the spontaneous gestures and confident poses of three girls, his daughters Maria and Elena and his niece Maria Teresa García Banús. The angle, the ground that provides the base for the composition, and the treatment of light and shadow, all recall photography, whose influence on Sorolla’s painting can be traced to his close relationship with his father-in-law, Antonio García, one of the most prestigious Spanish professional photographers of the age. In August, the artist went from San Sebastián to paint in situ and from the life the three large preliminary paintings on local people from the Roncal region.

6.– Characters from the Roncal, 1912
Oil on canvas. 200 x 150 cm

The scene shows one of the oldest known ceremonies in Europe. Dating from 1375, it has been held every July 13 to commemorate the end of a dispute between the French valley of Baretour and the valley of Roncal in Navarra, over the Spanish border. Two life-sized figures, which bear the imprint of the painting of Velázquez and Manet, are shown in 17th-century dress against a background of flags and banners. The painting, held by some critics to be superior in quality to the definitive version, was a preliminary exercise for the panel devoted to Navarra for the Hispanic Society of New York.

7.– Andalusian Girl, 1914
Oil on canvas. 120 x 90 cm

Sorolla produced this painting in Seville while working on the panel of the Holy Week penitents known as nazarenos for the Hispanic Society of New York. He also did other paintings of women, perhaps not unconnected with the world of prostitution, all featuring, like this one, the solid presence of the female figure, the marked personality of the face and the delicately lit background.

Joaquín Sorolla (Valencia, 1863–Madrid, 1923)

Early inclined towards drawing and painting, Joaquín Sorolla soon began his artistic training by attending the night classes in drawing given by sculptor Cayetano Capuz at the local Crafts School. In 1879 he studied at the San Carlos School of Fine Arts in Valencia. In 1881 he travelled to a Madrid where visits to the Prado awoke his admiration for El Greco, Ribera and Velázquez.

Shortly afterwards, in 1885, he obtained a grant to study in Rome and from there he soon moved to Paris. From 1890, now established in Madrid, Sorolla set about consolidating his artistic career. In 1895 he was awarded the First Class Medal for his painting And They still Say Fish is Expensive, which shows how much in tune he then was with social realism. His work in the portrait genre was also highly acclaimed, and he was soon showered with commissions in Madrid and Paris. International fame and critical and commercial success came with exhibitions in Paris (1906) and New York (1909).

Sorolla’s style, known as luminismo, or “illuminism”, is based on the reflection of southern light and the use of an oily colour range that he applied in long brushstrokes to portray popular characters and activities. One of the most feted examples is Boys at the Beach (1910), now in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

His most ambitious work consists of fourteen panels on Spanish regional themes that he painted for the library of the Hispanic Society of New York, between 1912 and 1919. He spent the last years of his life working on the project, although sadly it remained unfinished; in 1920 he suffered a stroke at home in Madrid, and died three years later. He barely had a chance to enjoy his appointment in September 1919 as teacher of colouring and composition at Madrid’s renowned San Fernando School of Fine Arts, and never saw the inauguration of his masterpiece in New York, held three years after his death.