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The color of the sea

The sea was Joaquín Sorolla’s favorite subject-matter, the most personal and probably the most representative of his artistic career. He was born by the sea, but stayed far from it for most of his life, thus preserving an intense longing for the beaches of his childhood.

As an artist, he soon perceived the force of the sea as a spectacle and felt the visual fascination that emerged from the incessant water movement and the clouds. He also perceived the succession of different daytime and seasonal lights, together with the enveloping strength of its atmospheres and the emotional power behind its great masses of color.

With this tour we wish to bring our digital visitors closer to the way in which Sorolla, through his particular way of analyzing the naturel as well as color, reflected one of his greatest passions: the sea.

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"Me sería imposible pintar despacio al aire libre, aunque quisiera… No hay nada inmóvil en lo que nos rodea. El mar se riza a cada instante; la nube se deforma, al mudar de sitio […] pero aunque todo estuviera petrificado y fijo, bastaría que se moviera el sol, que lo hace de continuo, para dar diverso aspecto a las cosas…Hay que pintar deprisa, porque ¡cuánto se pierde, fugaz, que no vuelve a encontrarse!”

“It would be impossible for me to paint slowly in the open air, even if I wanted to… There is nothing immobile in what surrounds us. The sea ripples every moment; the cloud deforms itself as it moves around […] but even if everything was petrified and fixed, the sun would still move, giving things a constantly different aspect… There is no doubt: one has to paint quickly, because otherwise one loses so much, so briefly and quickly! So much that it cannot be found again!”

Joaquín Sorolla, cited by Bernardino de Pantorba in La vida y la obra de Joaquín Sorolla. Biographical and critical study.

His early works such as Marina in 1880 which consisted on panoramic views contemplated from afar and influenced by tradition and classical values, will soon be transformed by his constant work au naturel, his research on the swell and the water movement on the sea shore. Indeed, Sorolla looks down and discovers the infinity of nuances of color, textures as well as the shapes that the water recreates.

Marina, 1880. Inventory Number 1342.
Valencia, 1889. Inventory Number 509 (Detail)

Sorolla captures the foam of the waves, the ripples of the sea stirred by the wind, and other visual phenomena enriching his paintings with the close artistic gaze that characterized much of the modern painting that was being carried out at the time. With a rapid technique he captures attractive as well as ephemeral effects, combining light and water. With his quick technique, Sorolla captures the attractive yet ephemeral visual effects which combine light and water: transparencies and reflections through brushstrokes of fragmented colour and the breaking of objects onto the water surface; refractions which break up the swimmers’ bodies; a sea of mirrors made up by the fine layer of water on the sand; and backlights neutralizing the colours and making the figures appear weightless.

Jávea, 1900-1901.

Jávea, 1900-1901. MS, nº inv 466 (Detalle). Reflejos

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Pasajes, 1904.

Pasajes, 1904. MS, nº inv 652 (Detalle). Reflejos

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Muchacho a la orilla del mar, 1904.

Muchacho a la orilla del mar, 1904. Nº inv 665 (Detalle). Espejos y reflejos.

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"Nadadores, Jávea", 1904

Nadadores, Jávea, 1905. MS, nº inv. 719. Reflejos, transparencias y refracción

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Mar, Jávea, 1905

Mar, Jávea, 1905. MS, nº inv 726. (Detalle). Transparencias y refracción

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María en la playa de Biarritz, 1906

María en la playa de Biarritz, 1906. MS, nº inv 775 (Detalle). Contraluz

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After these intense water observations, Sorolla looks up in order to encompass the sea as landscape and to feel the different colors present at different times of the day: sunrise, sunset, noon and even at night; moments when the light warms and cools the landscape, dramatically accentuating or softening the shadows.

In those sessions of plein-air painting, Sorolla is not intimidated by the intense sun or the blinding light. In fact, the sun produces him a state of exaltation which he, in turn lives with intensity. For him, plein-air painting or painting outdoors meant “to paint under the sun”.

Sorolla abandons his Mediterranean beaches for the northern coasts and discovers in them a softer and more nuanced light which is influenced by the rapid changes of the atmospheric conditions. The variations in terms of light and color of the Cantabrian Sea and of the Mount Ulía in San Sebastián allow him to investigate the constant changes in the tonalities of the sea in relation to the sky and the earth. From the grays of the stormy sea to the emerald green or cobalt, Sorolla also reflects the different shadows when the calmness of the sea allows him to do so.

Cap Martí, Jávea, 1905.

Cap Martí, Jávea, 1905. MS, nº inv. 729 (Detalle). Atardecer

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Pescadora con su hijo, Valencia, 1908.

Pescadora con su hijo, Valencia, 1908. MS, nº inv 814 (Detalle). Atardecer

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Saliendo del baño, 1914

Saliendo del baño, 1914. MS, nº inv 1115 (Detalle). Pleno sol

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Las velas, 1914

Las velas, 1914. MS, nº inv 1136 (Detalle). Pleno sol

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Rompeolas, San Sebastián, 1917-1918

Rompeolas, San Sebastián, 1917-1918. MS, nº inv 1178 (Detalle)

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Rompeolas, San Sebastián, 1917-1918.

Rompeolas, San Sebastián, 1917-1918. MS, nº inv 1246 (Detalle)

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Monte Ulía, San Sebastián, 1917-1918.

Monte Ulía, San Sebastián, 1917-1918. MS, nº inv 1248 (Detalle)

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The beauty of these landscapes lies in Sorolla’s ability to capture the different shades of light and the colors that the sea acquires. But to be able to perceive these changes is not enough, one needs to be able to transfer them into the canvas and translate that same brilliance and luminosity that reigns in the natural world. However, the painter does not paint with light, but with pigments consisting on opaque powders together with perception itself, which naturally modifies our color perception depending on the colors that surround it.

The representation of nature is not only influenced by artistic resources but also by the material resources that the artist has access to, and these in turn depend largely on each epoch. Traditionally, painters had a limited number of pigments available, which they themselves prepared from vegetal elements like indigo or from semi-precious minerals such as azurite or lapis-lazuli. With these minerals in particular, the painters would obtain ultramarine blue, a very precious pigment which increased the cost of painting.

Nevertheless, these impediments start to attenuate in the 18th century thanks to the development of the chemical industry providing the artists’ palette with new and bright colors. In fact, these had remained unreachable for years as painters only had at their disposal natural pigments.

With this in mind, Sorolla’s generation is no longer obliged to prepare colors manually and the development of the soft metal paint-tubes allowed for further developments in plein-air painting. In addition, portable easels (which included small panels, palettes and paint tubes) and new transport modes, such as the train, brought about more progress in this kind of painting.

Lapis lazuli minerals
Painting tools that belonged to Sorolla
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“Yo lo que quisiera es no emocionarme tanto, porque después de unas horas como hoy, me siento deshecho, agotado, no puedo con tanto placer, no lo resisto como antes, es que la pintura cuando se siente es superior a todo; he dicho mal, es el natural lo que es hermoso.”

“I wouldn’t like to be so moved, because after a few hours like today, I feel destroyed, exhausted, I cannot cope with so much pleasure anymore. I no longer resist it the way I used to before, this is because the pleasure of paint feels superior to everything. Actually, I said it wrong, it is the experience of naturel which is beautiful.”

Sorolla (Alicante) to Clotilde (Madrid), 1918.

Sorolla is marveled by the light and the naturel but it is not his contemplation which moves him, but rather transforming it into a painting. During his whole life, he has been dealing with the “poor misery of colors” that is, with pigments that in their opaque materiality do not render justice to the original splendor of light. However, Sorolla has been treasuring those moments of light and color for a long time, producing small sketches or paintings dating from very different periods.

These are all moments in which Sorolla tends to detach himself from nature and its original form transforming the painting into a pure synthesis of color. The painter shows us especially poetic moments of color in which quite simple images then give prominence to the beauty of colors that combine with the pictorial surface.

Una barca en la cala de San Vicente, 1919.

Una barca en la cala de San Vicente, 1919. MS, nº inv 1261 (Detalle)

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Playa de Valencia, 1908

Playa de Valencia, 1908. MS, nº inv 922 (Detalle)

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Playa de San Sebastián, 1902.

Playa de San Sebastián, 1902. MS, nº inv 436 (Detalle)

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Estudio de mar, Valencia, 1903-1904.

Estudio de mar, Valencia, 1903-1904. MS, nº inv 927 (Detalle)

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Mar de Zarauz, 1910.

Mar de Zarauz, 1910. MS, nº inv. 1247 (Detalle)

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Playa de Biarritz, 1906

Playa de Biarritz, 1906. MS, nº inv 768 (Detalle)

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San Sebastián, 1905.

San Sebastián, 1905. MS, nº inv 912 (Detalle)

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The author of this painting is now quite far from the young artist who painted that classical seascape in the port of Valencia. By this time he has witnessed Impressionism, Pointillism, Fauvism and Cubism and although he had never joined any of those movements specifically, Sorolla no longer sees nature or painting in the same way as he did before.

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Imagen catálogo color del mar

We have made available to all curious, avid readers as well as paint lovers the exhibition’s catalogue: The Color of The Sea. Here you can find more information about Sorolla’s works, his color palette, and other interesting aspects like how we tend to perceive colors and pigments.

Check catalogue PDF (Only in Spanish)


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