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The 20th century was a period of great changes in culture and society all over Europe. In Spain, the century began with a devastated country that had just lost the last of its colonies in the Americas.  Immersed in a profound economic, social and political crisis the country entered the new century seeking to reinvent and modernize itself.  It was a time of drastic reforms that divided the country; going from a Monarchy to a Republic, the development of a new, free and lay education system as well as the implementation of many legal and social reforms. Meanwhile, Europe was in no better condition and lived through the first of the two world wars that defined the politics of 20th Century Europe.

All the changes, reflections and reforms led the country to a time of turmoil and unrest. Breaking away from the past Spanish traditions and building the pillars of the future Spain was not easy nor harmless and the new ideas were often confronted and challenged.  This discussion impregnated society and it deeply influenced the works of some of the most important writers, philosophers, artists and painters of the time.  Joaquin Sorolla was one of them.

20th-century Spanish painters: Sorolla

When it comes to 20th-century Spanish painters, the traditional benchmarks are Picasso and Dalí. However, before they astounded the American public with their work, there were other visual artists who were also very successful.  This is the case of Joaquín Sorolla, Valencian painter, whose exhibition at the New York Hispanic Society in the early 1900 achieved unprecedented success. Of the 356 painting that were on the show,  195 were sold.

Sorolla And Valencian School

Born in the second half of the 19th century, young Sorolla demonstrated his talents for painting at a very early age.  His education stated in Valencia where he attended the School of Fine Arts but very soon moved to Madrid and from there, travelled to Rome and Paris.   During his early time, he was deeply influenced by the Valencia´s light and seascape painters such as Rafael Monleon but also by the crude social realism of the late nineteenth century.   Like many of his contemporaries, the exploration of Spain and its peoples, way of life and future became one of the focus of his early works.  Although he does not have a defined style yet, his paintings show an integration of all these different styles and techniques in equally balance softening somehow some of the social scenes that were portrayed. Still, Sorolla always considered illumination as the essence of his paintings, subduing his command of drawing and color to reproduce the effects of light regardless of the scene. In his own words “Art has nothing to do with ugliness or sadness. Light is the life of everything it touches, so the more light in a painting, the more life, more truth, more beauty”.   Some of the painting of this period include Another Marguerite!, which earns him the first place medal at the national Exhibition of Fine Arts in 1892; The White Slave Trade or the famous And They Still Say Fish is Expensive!, also awarded in first medal in 1895.

In this early time, it is also worth mentioning his close relationship with Antonio García, a well-known photographer at the time.  Sorolla started working for him at a very early age and had a great influence in his training, the painter not only learned not all the photographic techniques but also helped him develop his extraordinary “photographic memory” that allowed him to retain the atmosphere, expression, light and movement of an entire scene in one moment.  Not only that, Sorolla later married his daughter Clotilde.

Sorolla In The Hispanic Society

By the beginning of the 20th century Sorolla consolidated himself as a very successful painter in Spain where he started being recognized with different important prizes and national awards. But it is the influence of his long-time friend Aureliano Beruete, who suggested him to work as a portrait painter, that changed his life.  In just five months in 1906, Sorolla painted 17 portraits of the most influential people of the time; public figures, aristocrats, bankers, politicians and even the Royal Family wanted one of his works. 

In 1909 his works travel to New York where is holds his first US Exhibit in The Hispanic Society. The New York exhibition was an overwhelming triumph and confirmed Sorolla's success. In fact, the exhibition at the New York Hispanic Society was so successful that it introduced him to the most important families in the city and many of them wanted a portrait made by him as well.  Two years later 1911, Milton Huntington entrusted him with the very special commission   to create 14 murals illustrating the different provinces of Spain, its landscapes and its peoples. The importance of the commission was evident, not only for the task to be done, but also because this project stood out as it was a unique multi-million dollar contract ever signed by a Spanish artist anywhere. The fourteen murals, known as The Regions of Spain, are still on display at the Hispanic Society in New York.

Sorolla: An International Painter From Valencia, An Eternal Painter

Today, almost one hundred years after his death, Sorolla continues to be one the public´s favorites.  People love to visit his house in Madrid and enjoy looking at his works, photographs, paintings, portraits and especially those familiar and domestic scenes of women and children bathing and playing in the sunny and beautiful beaches of Valencia.

Sorolla will always be a reference of the turn of the 20th century art his work, not only for his great popularity and success but also because he was able to take Spain beyond our borders showing the Spanish traditions and culture to the world.  You can visit the famous murals in The Hispanic Society next time you go to New York.  In the meantime, if you travel to London don´t forget to stop by the National Gallery to look at the temporary exhibit Sorolla: Master of Light.


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