La lumière c’est la vie. Por lo tanto cuanta más luz en las pinturas más vida, más verdad y más belleza. (Joaquín Sorolla).
La lumière c’est la vie. So, the greater light in my paintings, the greater life, truth and beauty.
During Sorolla’s era, science had made great advances about the mysterious nature of light. Since the end of the 19th century, technical progresses made light, both artificial and natural, an increasingly accessible good. While the use of light and artificial lighting was expanding (first with kerosene and gas lamps, and then with the diffusion of electric lighting), new construction techniques improved the use of natural light in buildings.
Thus, the everyday experience with light changed substantially and paint registered new achievements not only vis à vis light and plein-air paint but also towards its effects and nuances. Consequently, light took over painting.
If until then light had mainly served to illuminate objects, since the mid-nineteenth century light gradually became the main protagonist of several artworks. Let us think for example about the famous painting Impression, Sunrise by Monet.
With this tour we wish to bring our digital visitors closer to a particularly interesting selection of paintings dominated by light. This will enable us to discover why Sorolla, already in his time, became widely known as the “Painter of Light”.
1. TOWARDS LIGHT
From the very beginning, Sorolla was certain that the “lively” sensation of paintings depended mostly on the animation of light, so the natural light that he painted outdoors soon became his most important subject-matter.
In his path towards the challenging mastery of light, Sorolla will explore very different ways of representation, and some of them will be abandoned such as the study of nocturnal nights. On the other hand, others will gain more and more strength in his paint, gradually becoming his main contributions to the history of paint. Let us take a look at them:
Although shadows are inseparable companions of light, these form part of our daily visual experience even if we usually pay little attention to them. Traditionally, shadows have been used in paint as a tool to represent volume, gradually becoming an object of study and a basic pillar in academic teaching.
Indeed, shadows have served as tools and have coexisted with paint as a secondary effect of light. Throughout the history of painting, we can see how painters have represented shadows, sometimes with remarkable finesse. For example, shadows served Velázquez to firmly establish the figure of Pablo de Valladolid on the ground. However, it was not until the time of the Impressionists that shadows gained importance and acquired a real prominence in painting.
By strongly focusing on visual perception itself, the Impressionist revolution finally payed new attention to shadows. When being outdoors, shadows stopped being perceived as a grayish and painting started to truly register the shadow’s color; consisting on tones of blue and purple.
As a keen observer and constant experimenter, Sorolla focused strongly on light effects and optic challenges throughout his career. Indeed, he made such analysis the main subject matter of his work in studies, colour notes, and paintings in which shadow takes the role of the protagonist.
The shadow of an object duplicates its original silhouette, and the same occurs with its reflection on water, on a shiny surface as well as on a mirror. Sorolla materialized several times his interest for mirrors, portraying himself on them, no matter how difficult this was. In the case of a mirror, his image becomes quite easy to represent since the flat and smooth surface of the mirror naturally renders back a clear and defined image.
However, reflections on water work very differently. Indeed, reflections mix the reflected image with whatever becomes visible under water, aspects which may even be unstable, moving from time to time. Yet, Sorolla executed such reflections quite often, sometimes mimicking the effect on a mirror, and others, depicting water in movement.
A recurring motif in Sorolla’s work is that of the bathers relaxing on the seashore. In some cases, this motif takes an architectuctal form, where the sitters are duplicated on the still water of pond formations or on the flowing stream. The clear lines characterising the architectural motif produce clean shadows and spectacular reflections, to which Sorolla gives absolute prominence in the composition, allowing them to take over.
4. FILTERED LIGHT
Under the trees’ branches, light breaks into capricious splashes, playing restlessly with the movement of the leaves. It is quite difficult to capture this effect, but it becomes hypnotic for a painter who is decided to study light au naturel. From the very beginning, light filtered between vegetation became one of the forms of illumination that especially seduced Impressionist painters. Indeed, Monet was an initiator on this type of illumination: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1865-1866) and Mujeres en el jardín (1866-1867) are both paintings that were executed under the trees. Simultaneously, Renoir who was in close contact with Monet, also tried this type of painting from his beginnings. For example, in the Baile en el Moulin de la Galette (1876), sunlight filters in light sparkles on darker areas.
This splashed light made the modelling of the drawing quite difficult, because this irregular and unstable lighting hindered precision. This was one of the reproaches made to the Impressionists. In the same way, the contrasts between the illuminated and the shaded areas also remained quite difficult for the Impressionists as well as for Sorolla’s contemporaries.
Sorolla was well aware of these effects. He had observed them in the paintings by the Impressionists as well as earlier in time, particularly in the small paintings by Velázquez depicting the Villa Médicis. Sorolla was always very receptive to light, and from the very beginning, he had observed the different light spots under arbors or wattles, assuming a protagonist role in paintings such as Cosiendo la vela.
Light filtered under the trees’ foliage was a particular object of analysis for Sorolla. He executed it throughout his artistic career, yet there came a point in his life when he really focused on this motif. This occurred during his stay in La Granja in the summer of 1907. In these series of paintings, Sorolla’s main interest is light itself, while the narrative of the painting becomes a mere support and pretext to depict this study.
At his best, Sorolla combines truth and beauty in a very exceptional way. His distinctive achievement is the effect of sunlight on white-white skin, white sails, white dresses, white walls. His whites are never twice alike, but they speak vividly of various sorts of sunlight on various sorts of surfaces and edges. There are no splatter-dashes to offend the sensitive, but from Monet or from experience he has learned that a slight mixture with pure white pigment of yellow or vermillion for parts in light, and violet or blue for parts in shadow, will produce the illusion of air that sparkles with sunbeams.
Duncan C. Philips Jr., “Sorolla. The Painter of Sunlight ”, Art in Progress, Vol. IV, no 2, December 1912, p. 791.
Indeed, white colors illuminated by the sun were Sorolla’s hallmark. Light became an obsession for many painters of his era, but nobody achieved to paint its radiance on white surfaces like he did. In fact, it seems that the canvas itself is what irradiates light from within.
6. THE ART OF LIGHT
The Pink Robe synthesizes many of the searches made by Sorolla in order to achieve light. In fact, Sorolla himself considered this painting as “the best one that I have ever done in my life”.
Here he relies on several types of lighting that have always fascinated him, like the aspect of objects when being exposed against the light, the filtered and splashed lights and the illuminated gloom. These were all difficult effects which were harder to translate into the canvas if compared to the clean, defined and brilliant lights present under the sun. Yet, these difficult effects were successful in making light a very present aspect in his painting.
This painting demonstrates the mastery that Sorolla has acquired throughout the years. He has achieved to master the lighting effects whilst reflecting the emotion that the game of lights provokes in him. Simultaneously, he shows his capacity to transfigure reality and to transform it into a prodigious and stunning sample of beauty.
We have made available to all curious, avid readers as well as paint lovers the exhibition’s catalogue: Sorolla. El arte de la luz. We hope you will be able to enjoy how Sorolla captures light and how he achieves to reflect it in his paintings.