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'Sorolla and America' opens in San Diego

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The Meadows Museum in Dallas, in cooperation with the San Diego Museum of Art, the Hispanic Society of America and Fundación MAPFRE, has assembled over 100 works by the Spanish master Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida for the traveling exhibit “Sorolla and America." This is the first retrospective on Spanish Post-Impressionist painter Joaquín Sorolla which focuses on his impact in the United States. The exhibition features nearly 150 works by Sorolla, including several of his most iconic paintings, and more than 40 never-before-displayed works. The exhibition opens today at the The San Diego Museum of Art. Arranged thematically, the exhibition features works representing the subjects and styles for which Sorolla was renowned, including portraits, beach scenes, gardens and landscapes, history paintings, and studies for decorative murals and which were created, exhibited, or sold in the United States during the artist’s lifetime. Finally this undeservedly neglected painter, like Anders Zorn, is out of the shadows and in the light, where he belongs.

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Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (27 February 1863 – 10 August 1923) was born in 1863 in Valencia, Spain. At the age of eighteen he traveled to Madrid, studying master paintings in the Museo del Prado, His talents enabled him to get grants to study in both Rome and Paris, the 19th century art capitals of Europe. His first striking success was achieved with "Another Marguerite" (1892), which was awarded a gold medal at the National Exhibition in Madrid, then first prize at the Chicago International Exhibition, where it was acquired and subsequently donated to the Washington University Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. He soon rose to general fame and became the acknowledged head of the modern Spanish school of painting. His picture "The Return from Fishing" (1894) was much admired at the Paris Salon and was acquired by the state for the Musée du Luxembourg. It indicated the direction of his mature output.

An even greater turning point in Sorolla's career was marked by the exhibition of "Sad Inheritance" (1899), an extremely large and highly finished canvas dealing with a subject which was a painful one for Spain at the time. A polio epidemic had swept the country and as there was no cure, many, especially children were left crippled. Two children, with shrunken limbs and on crutches are under the care of a monk. They are the emotional center of the painting but Sorolla skillfully juxtaposes their shimmering flesh against the monk's black robe. The painting earned Sorolla his greatest official recognition, the Grand Prix and a medal of honor at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900, and the medal of honor at the National Exhibition in Madrid in 1901. In this painting he perfected his technique for depicting the effects of light, a technique which he was to refine throughout his lifetime.

Joaquin Sorolla was passionate about the two loves in his life - his family and his art. Sorolla painted very, very fast. "I could not paint at all if I had to paint slowly," he once said. "Every effect is so transient, it must be rapidly painted." Most of his pictures were painted in from four to six mornings, many in one or two. He did not have a set idea of how a painting would turn out before he started, preferring to build up the composition as he went along. Sorolla was primarily interested in the image, not his paint. He learned this from his master, Velasquez who also often used a rough canvas and did not highly finish his canvas.

He was a classicist in that he painted thin-to-thick and saved the bravura brushwork for the last. He has been called an "impressionist" but that's not completely accurate. He did work en plein air, rejecting the more traditional 19th century practice of painting in the studio. Also like the Impressionists, he often used strokes of pure color, letting the eye optically “mix” the final colors rather than blending to a smooth finish. Nevertheless, it would be more accurate to call him a Spanish realist, one whose sense of color and place was informed by his Spanish nationalism and the dazzling sunlight of southern Spain. He was fascinated by light, by the way it played on any kind of surface.

The story of Sorolla and America begins in 1893, with Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida's prize-winning submission to the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. On the heels of this success, and a triumph at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1900, Sorolla would be invited by the philanthropist and collector Archer Milton Huntington to show his work at the Hispanic Society in New York. This exhibition, which went on to tour the United States, would secure Sorolla a host of prestigious commissions, including an invitation to the White House to paint the official portrait of President Taft—a work which is included in the exhibition. He became, along with Anders Zorn and John Singer Sargent, the preferred painter for society portraits, although like the other two, his talent was capable of so much more.

Sorolla’s reputation in this country would also come to rest on his picturesque paintings of Spanish subjects, including the beaches of his native Valencia. It was to produce such pleasing views that Huntington commissioned Sorolla to paint a series of murals, entitled the Visions of Spain, for the library of the Hispanic Society. This task, which would occupy the artist for years to come, may be counted his most significant American commission, but the fame of the "Visions of Spain" has also served to overshadow other facets of Sorolla’s success in America. This exhibition, organized by Blanca Pons-Sorolla, the artist’s great-granddaughter, brings together masterpieces that will be presented to audiences for the first time in America and Madrid.

The downside of the show - both in San Diego and in Dallas - is the museum's website. Tiny thumbnails flash by so quickly that the viewer can't grasp more information nor is much presented. Sorolla died in 1923 so there is no need to be so coy about copyright. Reproductions of his works are all in the public domain. There is a Sorolla Museum containing examples of Sorolla’s work, (along with a collection put together by Sorolla of the works of other artists) and a recreation of the artist’s studio, in Sorolla’s former house in Madrid. There is a new book accompanying the exhibit. Compiled by his great-grand daughter Bianca Pons-Sorolla, it focuses on his American patrons and his friendships with John Singer Sargent and William Merrit Chase.

At the San Diego Museum of Art through August 26, 2014.

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