Before Picasso, Joaquín Sorolla Was America’s Favorite Spanish Artist

DALLAS — “Everywhere the air was full of miracle,” wrote the American philanthropist Archer M. Huntington about Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida’s first major exhibition in the United States in 1909. “Nothing like it had ever happened in New York,” Huntington continued, “Ohs and Ahs stained the tile floors. Automobiles blocked the street.” Sorolla had already seen success since his teenage years in his home country, but his career reached new heights in the US and eventually granted him financial security that allowed him the creative freedom he didn’t have before. As the late Spanish art historian Mark Roglán noted of Sorolla in 2014, “The success he enjoyed in this country is unmatched by any other Spanish artist until the arrival of Pablo Ruiz Picasso.”

Today, Sorolla isn’t as well known in the US as Picasso, but an exhibition at the Meadows Museum in Dallas convincingly contends that he should be. Spanish Light: Sorolla in American Collections presents 26 rarely exhibited paintings by the artist from private collections in the US, curated by Blanca Pons-Sorolla, the artist’s great-granddaughter and a notable scholar of his work. The exhibition explores the legacy of Sorolla’s explosive American debut by tracing the ways that his paintings have changed hands in the decades since. Exhibition scholarship reveals the artworks’ original purchase prices and sometimes complex trajectories through inheritances, auctions, and other events. More importantly, Spanish Light offers US museum-goers a rare opportunity to experience a significant number of Sorolla’s paintings, which still feel so full of life a century after his death.

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Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, “The White Boat (El bote blanco. Jávea)” (1905), oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 59 inches
(photo courtesy Personal Archive, Blanca Pons-Sorolla, Madrid)

His exhibition at the Hispanic Society of America in New York — the show Huntington described in his letter — was arguably the most pivotal point in the artist’s career. Sorolla’s sparkling scenes of Spanish gardens and beaches captivated the American public and press, and inspired some of the country’s most prominent collectors to pull out their pocketbooks. The artist sold around 300 works from his New York exhibition and stayed on in the country for several months, painting commissioned portraits of the American elite. The Hispanic Society show was followed by popular exhibitions in Boston, Buffalo, and later Chicago and St. Louis.

Spanish Light is an apt title for the Meadows Museum’s reappraisal of the artist’s legacy. Sorolla was known in his day for his luminous, light-filled paintings of beaches and gardens. According to the catalogue, Hispanic Society curator Christian Brinton called Sorolla’s works “a jubilant symphony of sunlight” in 1909, and the French writer Henri Rochefort proclaimed, “I do not know any other brush that contains as much sun.” These observations ring especially true in Sorolla’s famous beach scenes. Often painted in his native Valencia, these pieces reveal the artist’s delight in catching the sun on every surface it touches, from playing children to boat sails to slick sand and small waves. Pieces like “The White Boat (El bote blanco. Jávea)” (1905) are an absolute marvel: Sorolla’s confident, swooping brush strokes exuberantly capture a fleeting, joyful moment in the water with an infinity of blues and greens.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, “Children Bathing among the Rocks, Jávea (Niños bañándose entre las rocas. Jávea)” (1905), oil on canvas, 13 x 24 3/4 inches (photo courtesy Personal Archive, Blanca Pons-Sorolla, Madrid)

Each artwork is accompanied by text explaining the piece’s history both as a painting and as a collected object. Some have remained in the same family since their original purchase, while others have bounced back and forth between the US and Spain, and sometimes other countries like Chile and Cuba. A catalogue essay by the art historian Cristina Domenech tracks how American collecting tendencies have shifted as larger art trends have changed, and as Sorolla gained or lost institutional attention.

It’s fascinating to learn how much was paid for these canvases, and to consider how sales and patrons buoyed the artist and his reputation over the years. However, the biggest boon of this show is simply that it provides visitors with the opportunity to experience so many of Sorolla’s dazzling paintings together at one time. The Meadows exhibition may not be causing the same hubbub as Sorolla’s original show in 1909, but it’s still very much worth the visit.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, “Beach of Valencia (Playa de Valencia)” (1908), oil on canvas, 26 x 37 3/4 inches (photo courtesy Personal Archive, Blanca Pons-Sorolla, Madrid)
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, “Children in the Sea, Valencia Beach (Niños en el mar. Playa de Valencia)” (1908), oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 41 3/4 inches (photo courtesy Personal Archive, Blanca Pons-Sorolla, Madrid)

Spanish Light: Sorolla in American Collections continues at the Meadows Museum (5900 Bishop Boulevard, Dallas, Texas) through January 7, 2024. The exhibition was curated by Blanca Pons-Sorolla.


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