Nowadays, it is an assiduous endeavor to mount a comprehensive solo show for an artist lesser known to the general public. It is even harder to locate and assemble artworks which were hung together more than one century ago. Meadows Museum of Art’s current exhibition Sorolla and America is a visual extravaganza that showcases the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla, who conquered American art scenes in the early 20th century. More than 100 works which have not been shown in public since his landmark exhibitions in 1909 and 1911 are now united in the galleries. Also, 40 or so paintings make their public debut. For the first time, American audiences can see the versatility and virtuosity of the artist better than any time in history. Perhaps even Archer Milton Huntington, one of his most important patrons, would be jealous.
One cannot help comparing Sorolla with Sargent. The latter, an American expatriate of the same period, also made his fame while aboard. They were both known for commissioned portraits. One gallery space brings many portraiture paintings together including that of President Taft, Arabella Huntington (mother of Archer Huntington) and Louis Comfort Tiffany. While Sargent enjoyed using his signature black to exert an air of authority and dignity, Sorolla was at his best when the setting was less uptight, and the light permeated the surroundings. Louis Comfort Tiffany commissioned his large portrait that was completed in one session – a methodology that Sorolla deemed critical in attaining the essence of sitters.
Seated in a blossoming garden of his Long Island estate in front of his easel, Tiffany is seen dressed in a dandy Parisian white suite. That white catches pastel colors from the reflected light of flowers. One would wonder whether Sorolla had intended to use such exotic colors and suffused light as a fitting abstraction for his patron’s career. Nevertheless, the portraiture, disguised in the form of a landscape painting (with an extensive view of the garden), captures a much larger presence of the sitter than any other in the gallery room.
That spontaneity rendered in portraits leads viewers into a closer examination of his techniques. If, for Sargent, bravura brushstrokes would never substitute the forms underneath, Sorolla’s bravura brushwork are the means to achieve such forms. They look looser, more abstract and often executed with greater velocity. One great example is a large study for his murals series in the Hispanic Society of America, founded by Huntington. Leonese Peasants, painted in the vein of traditional realism that dates back to the golden age of Spanish art, radiates a sense of immediacy through its masterful handling of paint. That artistic freedom occasionally brings forms of certain areas on the verge of self-destruction, only to be saved by its overall design and transformed into sensual impressions of light and shade. According to the painter, this is the most important work of his life. (The artist, however, listed more than one.)
Another highlight of the exhibition includes two early prize-winning paintings which are shown in the first room. ¡Otra Margarita! won the artist’s first medal at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. Sad Inheritance, the grand prize winner at the 1900 International Exhibition in Paris, is a shocking image in its social context. It foretells the painter’s interests in beach scenes in his later career: The warm skin tones contrast with cool ocean blue, the figurative solidity offsets translucency of low tides, and most of all, dabs of light from reflective surfaces create rhythms of frivolity. Visitors will later encounter a dozen or so luminous beach scene paintings in one room. In them, the extraordinary light from Valencia, San Sebastián or Biarritz fills canvases with magic and joys, shared by those anonymous nude boys splashing and romping around the tranquil beach. It is mesmerizing to see them in person, as if the brilliance of the Mediterranean sun not only has dazzled our eyes but also induced our senses of sound, smell and touch (of ocean breeze), as in a daydream.
The surprise of the exhibition comes from a group of gouache sketches of New York street scenes. All were done from his room window at the Savoy Hotel in 1909 and 1911. Sorolla considered them too sketchy to be worthy of showing in public. (Thus, many are shown here in the first time.) Painted on cardboard intended for folding shirts, they demonstrate the artist’s dexterity and efficiency in handling composition and forms. The unique elongated proportion and often limited color palette forced him to distil the hustle bustle city scenes into a gestural arrangement of lines, shapes and color blocks (in washes). If the fluency and immediacy are somewhat intimated by the size of big canvases in other gallery rooms, these small pictures of snowy, rainy or night scenes, dimly lit in a hallway, stand as the counter balance of sun-drenched Spanish coastlines, inviting American audience to look anew at their own city.
The exhibition is co-curated by Blanca Pons-Sorolla, great grand-daughter of the artist. For years, she has been trying to locate paintings in private hands. Sorolla himself once commented that his most important works were in America. Considering the exceptional holding from the Hispanic Society of America, the exhibition, centered on Sorolla’s US exhibitions and his relationship with important American patrons, sheds insights on how and why Sorolla won over America a century ago, and perhaps may rekindle public interests again in the 21th century.
Sorolla and America has been organized by the Meadows Museum, SMU, The San Diego Museum of Art, and Fundación MAPFRE. Currently, it is on view at Meadows Museum of Art until April 19, 2014.