In retrospect, it is hard to believe that he of all people learned to paint in the dark. For Joaquín Sorolla, Spain’s “Master of Light”, it began painting as a double life: during the day he aspired to a life as a locksmith according to his foster father’s will, at night he attended drawing lessons at the art academy Escuela de Artesanos in his hometown of Valencia. It was to take a few years before the painter, who was born in 1863, finally found his artistic home, out in the light: painting au plein air became his métier, which he pursued from then on without compromise and with enormous creative drive. To this day, Sorolla’s paintings are able to illuminate even the darkest room, they emit so much light.
“I have commissioned two boats with sails to be brought to the sea,” he wrote to his wife Clotide in 1907 from his place of work on the beach. He wanted to capture the effects that the morning backlight creates, he announced to her. And he did: In the painting that was then made on the beach in Valencia, it is as if the fishing boats were floating on mercury ripped by razor-sharp waves.
The shadow of death over the daughter’s face: the portrait doesn’t let you go
It is completely different in the portrait of his eldest daughter María painted in the same year in the royal gardens in Segovia: the soft sunlight, softened by the leaves of the trees under which María is standing, gilds the face, hat and dress of the delicate young woman. Sorolla was so fascinated by the play of light in this park with its numerous ponds that he made more than two dozen paintings there. One shows the young King Alfonso XIII, androgynous and sallow, in his hussar uniform. But the portrait that sticks with you is that of his daughter María. Where does this melancholy defiance in her eyes come from?
It is the facial expression of a survivor: a few months earlier, seventeen-year-old María had contracted tuberculosis. Sorolla painted the sick woman. She is lying on a bed of pillows and wrapped in thick fur in the shade of a parasol, with the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra de Guadarrama north of Madrid behind her. María looks directly at the viewer in the painting, her gaze is deep, penetrating. A father painted here, worried about his child. And here, too, the light expresses what words can hardly imitate: María’s face shimmers violet-wax, her large eyes look tired, shadowed by the large dark hat. It is the shadow of death that she lies under.
The portrait of the sick María was one of Sorolla’s favorite paintings. He never intended to sell it, but kept it and hung it in his studio where he could see it every day. The fact that the public is now able to see this most impressive of a whole series of portraits is thanks to a brilliant one Exhibition in the Royal Palace in Madrid. The show includes 24 paintings, some of which are in private collections and have rarely or never been seen in public, including that “María enferma”, the sick María.
Spain celebrates two big anniversaries this year: the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death and the 100th anniversary of Sorolla’s death. As expected, the celebrations of the officially proclaimed Picasso Year overshadowed the Sorolla Year. For a long time, Sorolla was considered obliging, as someone who had enormous success and was one of the best-selling painters in the world around 1900. But just as superficial. An insinuation. Sorolla’s painting represents a phenomenological view of the world that is easily misunderstood as superficiality. For him, the surface is the truth. The Madrid exhibition title “A través de la luz” is therefore as appropriate as it is difficult to translate: it means “through the light”, but also thanks to the light or “with the help of the light”.
In the royal palace, people pay their respects to Sorolla – again with the help of light: Even before the rooms with Sorolla’s luminous paintings await as the heart of the exhibition, two dark halls welcome the visitors. Here, floor-to-ceiling LED screens on all four walls transform Sorolla’s images into – well actually – pure light. An animation in the style of the lanterna magica, which was very successful during Sorolla’s lifetime, brings movement to the paintings. The effect on the viewer is one of enchantment: amazed like a child, you stand in the middle of the room and turn around while the images around you begin to dance.
is that naive spectacular? Not when you realize that Sorolla wasn’t concerned with turning off light, but with exactly the opposite: with the realization that the world that surrounds us is nothing but light. The gleam, the flicker, the shine, the radiance, the sparkle – and everything else that reaches our optic nerve. After all, people don’t see objects or colors, they see light that is reflected by them. Sorolla’s great subject, his accomplice and his lifelong challenge, was light in motion and thus life itself. In his pictures you can hear the rushing of the sea, the wind billowing skirts and children splashing in the waves. His painting is itself a form of moving light, a form of cinematography.
Sorolla a través de la luz. Until June 30th. Palacio Real, Madrid.