The Technical Brilliance of Joaquín Sorolla's Impressionistic Paintings

15 Minutes Read



Autorretrato (1909)

His full name is Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, but not many people recall his second surname when they think of Spain's most influential impressionist painter.

Sorolla: Contemplating the Life and Inspirations of the Spanish Painter

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (18631923) was a Spanish Impressionist painter best known for his large paintings of seascapes and beach scenes, as well as his portraits. Born in Valencia, Spain, Sorolla studied at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid and began painting professionally as early as 1881.

He soon developed a modern style of painting characterized by bright, clear colors and a preference for naturalistic light. His works often featured bright sunlight lighting figures in the outdoors, and their often monumental size gave the viewer a feeling of being there.

In 1909, Sorolla held a very successful exhibition in Madrid, which gained him international recognition. He held numerous exhibitions in Spain and abroad, and his works were acquired by the Spanish royal family and major banks and business groups. He also travelled extensively, visiting France, Great Britain, Italy, Tunisia, Morocco, and Portugal.

His travels provided inspiration for his seascape and beach paintings, which were typically massive in scale and featured a great variety of sea life. Sorolla's body of work also includes a number of landscapes and genre paintings depicting everyday life in Spain. His works often feature children, a major source of inspiration for the artist. One of his most famous works is La Playa Valencia, a painting of a family on the beach in Valencia.

In 1923, he suffered a stroke while painting in his garden, and died a few months later. His last major project was to exhibit sixteen mural paintings he had been commissioned to paint for the Hispanic Society of America in New York. Both Sorolla and his works have received ongoing recognition and are considered to be among the most important figures in Spanish art.


Sorolla First years: early interest in art

He was born in Valencia into a humble family on February 27, 1863. His parents, Joaquín Sorolla Gascón and María Concepción Bastida Prat, ran a modest textile business until, it is said, they died victims of a cholera epidemic. Sorolla was two years old at the time. He and his sister Concha were taken in by their aunt Isabel -their mother's sister- and their uncle. The latter was a locksmith by profession.


José Piqueras Guillén, which was his uncle's name, tried to get Joaquín to follow in his footsteps in the world of locksmithing. It turned out to be a useless effort because, although he learned the profession, he was indifferent to it. In fact, he was always attracted to painting. Fortunately, he followed his instincts and began to find a way into the world of painting.


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida: An Exploration of his Early Work

At the same time that his uncle made an effort to introduce Sorolla to his occupation in order to secure him a job, the young Valencian attended the Secondary School of Valencia. There, although the subjects were varied, he showed a strong preference for those in which drawing and color played a leading role. And it was not just a simple attraction, but rather he demonstrated certain abilities in the area. It was for this reason that the director of the school himself recommended to his family that Sorolla should focus his future on Fine Arts; the best option to develop his artistic passion.

Following this advice, Joaquín Sorolla then began his artistic training. He did so at the School of Artisans and under the orders of the sculptor Cayetano Capuz, who was his first mentor. At that time, Sorolla was 13 years old. He spent approximately two years there, during which he demonstrated that his vocation was painting and that, without a doubt, he had a natural gift for it. When he finished these preliminary studies, in 1878, he obtained what could be considered a great reward at that time: he entered the School of Fine Arts in Valencia. At the institution he received an education grounded in seventeenth-century Spanish painting; in other words, an education based primarily on the work of Diego Velázquez.

It was during these years at school that he began to shape his identity as an artist. He had many mentors throughout his time as a student in Fine Arts, but if there was one to be singled out, Gonzalo Salvá Simbor (1854-1923) was certainly one of the most important. It was him who introduced Sorolla to the world of plein air painting. Undoubtedly a great discovery for the then young Valencian, because if there is anything he is known for today, it is for his landscape work.

But beginnings are not easy. Not even for Joaquín Sorolla. When he finished his studies, back in 1881, the 18-year-old Sorolla decided to participate in the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid with three Marinas. Far from standing out, the truth is that his works went unnoticed; it is said that because they did not fit in with the historical and dramatic theme that was in trend at the time.


Marina (1880). Sorolla painted it when he had not yet completed his training. Sorolla Museum, Madrid.


In any case, his trip to Madrid to bring his works was not entirely in vain. He did not have the expected success in the contest, it is true, but he had the opportunity to visit the Prado Museum. He was captivated by the work of the painter he had studied and analyzed so much during his years as a student of Fine Arts: Diego Velázquez.

Back in Valencia after his trip to Madrid, Sorolla gets in touch with Ignacio Pinazo Camarlench -commonly known as Pinazo-, with whom he quickly connects. As a matter of fact, Pinazo insisted on developing Sorolla's skills as a landscape painter. It is even said that the artistic understanding between the two is such that some works of both painters are often mistaken for each other. Although Sorolla eventually formed his own style, it is true that Pinazo showed him a new way of treating light in painting that influenced his work.

Progressive recognition of his work

In 1883, Sorolla returned to Madrid with the intention of immersing himself even more in the great artists whom he had the pleasure of admiring at the Prado Museum. Therefore, during his second stay in the capital, the Valencian devoted himself to copying Velázquez, of course, but also other painters such as Ribera or El Greco.

Sorolla, far from giving up after his first refusal at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts, returned in 1884. This time he did so with a historical painting, Dos de Mayo, which he painted in one of the corrals of the bullring in Valencia, under the guidance of his teacher Pinazo. Who knows if the fact that it was the first time that a historical painting was painted from life may have been an incentive, but the fact is that Sorolla won the second medal.

IMAGEN 2Dos de mayo (1884)

Such was his success that that same year he entered a competition organized by the Provincial Council of Valencia, whose prize was a scholarship to study at the Spanish Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. He continued the historical line that had begun with the previous contest and presented El grito de Palleter (The Cry of Palleter). The jury, impressed, awarded the scholarship to a 20-year-old Sorolla. The work, created using the chiaroscuro technique, shows different figures in the most varied postures. As an anecdote, after his first two experiences in painting competitions, it is said that Sorolla told a colleague of his the following: "Here, to make yourself known and win medals, you have to paint death”.


El grito de Palleter (1884)

 The search for his personal identity

Thanks to the contests and scholarships in which he participates, finally the trip to Rome takes place. There, as it could not be otherwise, he is fascinated by the Italian Renaissance painters. However, he not only fell in love with classical art, but also came into contact with fellow artists such as Mariano Fortuny, whose artistic influence is still alive years after his death.

From Rome he moved to Paris, it is said that he was looking for new horizons. The truth is that little is known about Sorolla's stay in the French capital, but if there is something that transcended was the fascination he felt when he saw the exhibitions of two painters: the German Adolf Menzel and the French Jules Bastien-Lepage. According to his biographers, he took something from both artists after his visit to Paris: from the former, the exuberance of his palette; from the latter, his interest in themes of social protest. In addition, in the Parisian streets he also had the opportunity to take a closer look at Impressionist painting.

In his travels between Rome and Paris, Sorolla met many Spanish artists: Francisco Domingo Marqués, the sculptor Mariano Benlliure y Gil, José Villegas y Cordero and Emilio Sala Francés, among many others.

A dark moment in Sorolla's career

There is no true data to confirm it, but it is said that, back in Italy, he chose to travel around the country. According to the small colored notes that were found, it is thought that he was back and forth in Italian lands between the autumn of 1885 and the spring of 1886. It was after that when he decided to settle in Rome and begin to design the work that he would present at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts, whose next edition would be held the following year. He tried different themes, until he finally decided on one with a historical-religious motif: The Burial of Christ.

The painter already felt the disaster that was coming his way and so he told his brother-in-law in a letter in 1887, before leaving Rome. "I have suffered much more than you can imagine," the letter said. He had left aside color and light, two characteristics in which he felt comfortable, to bring "sobriety and mysticism".

As if he had guessed his own future, his work did not please the academics. The painting he presented seemed more historical than religious, which did not satisfy those who had to judge it. They assumed that, being one of the most dramatic passages of the Bible, Sorolla's piece had hardly a trace of that pain. Moreover, they expected a line similar to that of Dos de Mayo, which he presented years before. It is true that he was awarded a diploma, but the painter never picked it up. Such was his displeasure that so much effort and suffering did not pay off, that he rolled up the work and kept it in the basement of his house. It is said that he even destroyed it himself, and this is how it could be seen in the temporary exhibition that was installed in the Sorolla Museum.


Reconstruction of El entierro de Cristo (1887)

 His resurgence

Such was the episode he suffered that he left Rome to settle in Asis. There, together with the painter José Benlliure y Gil, he began to take an interest in costumbrist painting and, little by little, he began to make a place for himself in the Spanish-American market, where he sold watercolors with this theme. His scholarship is still in force, but his situation is a little precarious, so this way of subsisting allows him to continue there.

But not everything was painting at that time, because Sorolla also found love. On September 8, 1888, he married Clotilde García del Castillo, the daughter of the photographer Antonio García Peris, with whom he had worked years before. Although they were married in Valencia, the couple settled for a time in Asis, until the painter finished his scholarship and they returned to Spain.

The consolidation of Joaquín Sorolla

Already recovered from the criticism of his Entierro de Cristo some years before, when he settled in Madrid, Sorolla again presented his work at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in 1890. On this occasion he presented Boulevard de Paris, which was undoubtedly inspired by the artist's visits to the French capital. In this edition he also came into contact with two painters who would mark his next works. On the one hand, José Jiménez Aranda who, besides being a great follower of Fortuny, tried to direct Sorolla's costumbrist scenes towards something more commercial. On the other hand, Aureliano de Beruete y Moret: a landscape painter, he was an enthusiastic traveler who informed Sorolla about the novelties around Europe and who, in addition, was an important contact for the Valencian among the aristocrats of Madrid.

During this period, two new themes emerged in Sorolla's work: social realism and marine costumbrism.

Social realism in the work of Joaquín Sorolla

Like many other currents at that time, social realism was a fashion that had its origin in Bastien-Lepge and his work. Its objective? Of course: to highlight the flaws of the society of the time.

Otra Margarita! (first medal in the National Exhibition of 1892), ¡... y aún dicen que el pescado es caro! (also first medal in the 1895 contest), Trata de blancas (1894) or Triste herencia (1899), are some of the works that Sorolla made within the theme of social realism.


¡Otra Margarita! (1892)


¡... y aún dicen que el pescado es caro! (1895)


Trata de blancas (1894)


Triste herencia (1899)

Marine costumbrism in the work of Joaquín Sorolla

Although the marine theme seems to be innate in the work of the Valencian painter, the truth is that the marine costumbrism was not his own thing. In fact, it was his mentor Pinazo who initiated this movement, and it was Sorolla who later refined the theme to his own style. The truth is that the origin of this marine costumbrism is in the Valencian costumbrism, but dedicated exclusively to the sea. With La vuelta de la pesca (1894) he began his journey, which he developed until well into the twentieth century. On the other hand, Viento del sur (1899) is the first step in the beach theme that Sorolla would later work so much on.


La vuelta de la pesca (1899)

Sorolla's corresponding recognition

Paris, Munich, Chicago, Berlin, Venice and Vienna witnessed, since Joaquín Sorolla began to exhibit in 1892, the evolution of the Valencian artist. However, it was in the City of Light where, in 1900, he took part in the Universal Exhibition. Although the participants could only present two works, Sorolla had the privilege, which he shared with Raimundo Madrazo, of bringing six. The international jury awarded him the Grand Prix, recognizing him as one of the best painters in the world. This, added to the Medal of Honor at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid, which was awarded to him the following year, made Sorolla decide to invest his time in a much more personal work based on the already acquired luminism.

Sorolla and luminism

"There is nothing immobile in what surrounds us, but even if all that were petrified and fixed, it would be enough for the sun to move to give a different aspect to things".

This quote is attributed to Joaquín Sorolla, today known as the painter of light. The landscape, which until now had worked so well for him, takes on an important role in his current work. For two years, until 1904, it is said that he traveled around Spain capturing lights different from those that the Mediterranean coast, which he had painted so much, had offered him up to that moment.

He returned to Valencia and continued with the beach theme; from that year, we can highlight his work Verano (Summer). But he also continued his work as a portraitist and quickly consolidated a position in this genre.

Curious by nature, Sorolla continued to travel to Paris from time to time, where he encountered the different artistic trends that were taking place in Europe. For example, expressionism can be seen in his costumbrist and beach works, in which he dramatizes his compositions and uses a lot of sunset lights. And light is more present than ever in his work: the palette radiates brilliance and this is reflected in his works: one only has to look at works such as Pescadoras Valencianas (1903).


Verano (1904)


Pescadoras valencianas (1903)

Sorolla spent some time in Paris in 1906 because of an individual exhibition in the city. It seems that his stay there influenced his painting in a certain way, and that the acquisition of knowledge of French painting made him think differently. In August of the same year, he travels to Biarritz where he produces a series of works in which the French influence can be seen: less intensity in the palette, reduction of contrasts and an approach to French impressionism through the use of whites, purples and violets. An example of this can be Instantánea (1906).


Instantánea (1906)

Portraitist and landscape painter

Influenced by the Generation of '98 and also by Aureliano de Beruete, Sorolla gives the Castilian landscape a chance, starting with Segovia and Toledo. He settled there until, in the summer of 1907, the kings of Spain commissioned him to paint a portrait of themselves at the Royal Site of La Granja de San Ildefonso. Following this theme in which he became interested, years later he traveled to Seville to portray Queen Victoria Eugenia, discovering then the magic hidden in the gardens of the Reales Alcazares and capturing them in his canvases.


Retrato de Alfonso XIII con uniforme de húsares (1907)

In the meantime, Sorolla had to prepare the exhibition to be held in London, which would open in May 1808 and which, beyond its success or not, served him to meet Archer Huntington, the founder of The Hispanic Society of America in New York who, genuinely, invited him to exhibit in the American city.

It was in 1909 when he set out on this new chapter and held a monographic exhibition of about three hundred and fifty works. As could be expected, it was a great success and he sold almost half of the works he brought with him.

On his return to Spain and, after settling in Valencia, Sorolla began, it is said, one of his most brilliant periods as a painter. He returns to those themes related to the beach, in which he now captures sensitivity everywhere. Without going any further, Paseo a orillas del mar (1909), is one of the works that describe this moment of the painter. After that, he moved to the south and tried to capture the essence of each of the corners of the Andalusian provinces. Later, Avila and Burgos also became the object of his attention and his interest in collecting urban scenes.


Paseo a orillas del mar (1909)

Sorolla and his vision of Spain: his last stage as a painter.

His friendship with Archer Huntington not only led him to prepare several exhibitions throughout the United States. In October 1910, they both met in Paris because the American had a great proposal, perhaps one of the most important, for the painter: to decorate the walls of the Society with the regions of Spain. It was almost a year later when the commission was formalized and the contract was signed: the idea was having the work ready in five years. Fast-forwarding events, those five years were extended to eight.

It was with this commission that Sorolla's last stage as a painter began. Undoubtedly, he was very seriously committed to the commission he had been given, as he locked himself up for months in his studio in Madrid to collect all kinds of material that could be useful to him when composing the works.

It was in 1913 when, making use of a large space on the sorroundings of Madrid, he began to prepare the first work of the great decoration: La fiesta del pan (1913), which shows the people of the two Castillas and the kingdom of León. Almost 14 meters long, it took him about a year to finish it.


La fiesta del pan (1913)

From then on, his life would be a constant journey through Spanish lands. His next stop was Seville, where he painted Los nazarenos (1914), and then he went to San Sebastian, where he composed Los bolos (1914) and to Navarre (Concejo del Roncal) and Aragon (La jota).

In June 1915, he distanced himself a little from the commission and, although for a while he painted very little, he did so on the marine costumbrism that he had carried out years before. In the following years, he would combine his more personal work (costumbrismo and seascape) with the decoration for the American institution.

After years of getting to know in depth the different cultures and all the hidden corners of Spain, he finally returns to Madrid and joins the Department of Color, Composition and Landscape at the School of Fine Arts of San Fernando, where he will teach for a year. In June 1920, Joaquín Sorolla suffers a hemiplegia which, unfortunately, keeps him away from the brushes.

Three years later, and after incessant attempts by his family to facilitate his recovery, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida died in Cercedilla on August 10, 1923. This was the goodbye to one of the greatest painters of the national and international scene.

Clotilde García del Castillo, muse and partner

Clotilde García del Castillo deserves a section of her own. She was not only Joaquín Sorolla's muse, as can be seen in so many works that today occupy the walls of the Sorolla Museum. Her role was much more important. In fact, this is how Huntington expressed it in a writing: "My poor, dear Clotilde. She has had to bear all the weight of the family and of living with a genius, and her little body has fought almost as many battles as that of her eminent husband. Without her Sorolla surely would not have reached where he has reached". It is said that she was the administrator and organizer of many of the events in which the painter participated.

What is clear is that she was a source of inspiration for Sorolla, who portrayed her in every possible way.

Sorolla Museum, a house open to the public

Clotilde died in 1929. She, Sorolla's muse on so many occasions, was aware of the artistic and cultural heritage left behind by her husband. That is why she donated all her assets to the State, in memory of the painter, to create a museum that would be established in her own house on General Martínez Campos Street. In 1931 it was accepted and it was a year later when, finally, the Sorolla Museum opened its doors to the public.

Sorolla's corner in Madrid

It was in 1905 when Sorolla acquired the land that today is the Sorolla Museum. One of the painter's objectives was to be able to combine the work area with the family area, as his intention was to always have his family close by. Thus, although the design of the house was slow, four years later its construction began under the orders of the architect Enrique María de Repullés y Vargas. Shortly thereafter, and after his successes in the United States, Sorolla had the opportunity to buy the adjacent land, which would expand his study area and also incorporate the gardens that today give life to the building.

Sorolla was personally involved in this project, and this is reflected in the collection of drawings that he himself made and that are currently in the Museum. His work area, with high ceilings and sprinkled with natural light in every corner. The gardens, a creation of the Valencian artist that he not only designed, but also turned into one of his favorite themes during his last years as a painter.

Detailed work of Joaquín Sorolla

After knowing the life of the painter, all his stages and moments, study a little more in detail some of his works.


Desnudo de mujer (1902)


She is no other than his wife, Clotilde, the subject of much of the artist's work.

During his first visits to Madrid, when he was younger, Joaquín Sorolla was amazed by the Prado Museum and all that it had to offer. However, if there is one painter who really captivated him, it was Diego Velázquez. His influence was such that, undoubtedly, the Valencian adopted certain resources of the Sevillian. This Desnudo de mujer is a clear example of this: it inevitably brings to mind Velázquez's Venus del Espejo of 1651.

Undoubtedly, it shows a masterful control of color through the velatura technique. It combines the carnality of the naked body with the sensuality and delicacy of the sheets and the bedspread, all through the paint stains. A tribute to impressionism and works that marked a before and after in the history of art.


El bote blanco (1905)


This scene took place in Jávea, a place that Sorolla knew and fell in love with. So much so, that in a letter he writes: "Jávea sublime, immense, the best I know to paint... I'll be a few days. If you were here, two months... How wrong you were not to come!!!, you would be so happy... You would enjoy it so much! This is the place I've always dreamed of, sea and mountains, but what a sea!”

The colors are infinite in this painting made in 1905, achieved without the need to increase the palette. Sorolla shows an absolute mastery in the achievement of painting the transparency of the water, as well as the movement of the waves and, consequently, of the children.


Niños en la playa (1910)


Sorolla represented like no one else the light of the Mediterranean and what it transmitted; a luminosity that accompanied the painter during practically his entire professional career.

The reflection of the three children on the wet sand, the composition, the shine of the sun on the skin... all achieved through those free brushstrokes, full of life, that evoke the impressionism that he mastered to perfection.

The work of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida is immense and spectacular. He not only mastered the light in his work with total mastery, but also knew how to transmit a sensitivity and delicacy that, although many people tried to imitate, no one really achieved. Sorolla, a fervent enthusiast and a painter who spread his light wherever he went.