Are you fed up with listening to bad news every morning on the radio? Suffering anxiety over rising unemployment rates? Do you think you’ll have a breakdown if you hear about one more cutback or strike? Take a break from it all to visit the Sorolla Museum. Two steps take you through the iron gate open in the high brick wall into an oasis of peace and quiet. The garden, designed by Sorolla, is a profusion of vine-draped pergolas and walls tiled in bright ceramic of blues and yellows and greens. A shallow pool styled on the Andaluz Moorish pattern, long and rectangular, with gentle jets of spray arching into the water, invites the visitor to sit for a while on one of the benches set under shady trees. Ironically, it was here, painting in the garden, that Sorolla suffered the stroke that incapacitated him for the last three years of his life. A sad end to a short but productive life.
The museum is housed in the painter’s home. The place has been given a bit of a facelift, with a new ticket area and small bookshop in an inner patio, but the general layout is the same as it ever was. One walks up the same wooden stairs to get to the top floor to the same reassuring creaks. It was comforting to hear, a homey gemütlich sound I remembered from many visits of pilgrimage to this favorite place full of favorite paintings.
A photograph in each room shows the original use and design of the space: the showroom where those paintings that were for sale were exhibited, his studio with its heavy wooden desk and a settee draped with wine-colored velvet curtains creating a completely enclosed space where one imagines him retiring for a solitary siesta, the dining room decorated with garlands and portraits of his wife and daughters, the large airy reception area where he received guests. On this visit, the collection has been changed around to make room for a temporary exhibit on the top floor. This is dedicated to his wife, Clotilde, and is what brought me to the museum once again.
Sorolla did everything expected of a young painter of his time. He studied in Rome. He denounced social injustice with his depictions of poor girls being taken to the cities to work as prostitutes (“Otra Margarita”, “Trata de blancas”). He painted society portraits, which was a lucrative business at the time, as well as portraits of some of Spain’s most forward-thinking intellectuals, writers and scientists. With his nine-year commission for the Spanish Hispanic Society, he travelled extensively throughout Spain to study age-old customs that were fast dying out, and observe traditional costumes. But perhaps his most popular and well-known paintings are light-filled scenes of naked carefree children bathing in the sun-dappled sea of the Valencian coast, their mothers waiting with white sheets to bundle them up in. Women adjust the straps of loose tunics slatted by the bright sun streaming through wooden blinds, in paintings with titles such as “Saliendo del baño” or “Despues del baño”. A fisherman’s wife stands staring out to sea, one arm wrapped around a sleeping child, her other hand shielding her eyes against the long shadows of the late evening sun. These golden paintings contrast with the cooler white light of his northern scenes. Here, elegant society women in the white dresses of the period walk along the beaches of northern Spain, holding wide-brimmed hats against the wind, carrying lace-trimmed parasols or stand staring out at the waves.
People think of Sorolla as an easy painter, rapidly filling canvases almost as the mood took him. Looking at “La siesta”, for example, we feel as if we have just returned from a walk ourselves to find the four girls sprawled comfortably in the cool grass, resting in the stifling afternoon heat. But the truth is that Sorolla studied every detail beforehand so that, once he started painting, he knew exactly what he wanted to depict, where he wanted the figures to stand, how he wanted the light to play on the scene. In his downstairs studio there are a series of tiny studies, several of them recognizable in the larger finished works. One in particular caught my eye: a toddler at the edge of the waves, its plump short body full of a mixture of apprehension and fascination at the moving water, clearly visible even in this rough miniature study. Deceptively simple.
Going up those creaky stairs, one comes to a landing backed by two narrow arched openings separated by a column. Glassed in, these interior windows overlook the studio the visitor has left below. The ceilings in this house are tremendously high, especially by today’s cramped standards, and this landing-pause provides a more comfortable view of the paintings hanging high up on the walls below. Above the arches hangs a large portrait of Sorolla’s three children, painted in 1908. This is one of many painted throughout the years. Devoted to his family, there are numerous portraits of his children, separately or together. They were a close-knit family, and he used them all as subjects.
But the love of his life was Clotilde. They married in 1888. Here, filling the top floor, are photographs of her as a young woman taken by her father, a studio photographer and Sorolla’s first employer, drawings and quick studies done by Sorolla of Clotilde reading, sewing, playing with the children. A study in gray, and three large portraits from 1920 invariably show Clotilde graceful in any pose. Wrapped warm in a Twenties-style coat and hat or dressed for the evening in black or leaning against the balustrade looking out at the sea or clothed in the brilliant white fashion of 1910, her gaze is direct, wise and serene.
A glass case in the back room contains some of the letters that she and her husband exchanged throughout the years. Apparently, she loved to sit beside him while he painted and, as he became more successful and travelled more often, she writes longingly of the simpler days when they were together as a family, with fewer visitors, fewer obligations, able to take walks together after a day’s work. As for Sorolla, he writes, “How unhappy I would have been if I hadn’t loved you the way I do.” Not “if I hadn’t met you” – as if it were all fate, something he had no choice over.
Sorolla never recovered from his stroke, and never painted again after 1920. He lived on for three more years, Clotilde always by his side. There is a photograph of them together, taken in 1921. Sorolla, seated in an armchair and looking tired and old (he was only 60 when he died in 1923) looks at the photographer. Clotilde is sitting on the arm of the chair, absently looking off at something beyond our vision. Her chin leans gently on her husband’s head, and she has one arm around his shoulders, barely touching his neck, while her left hand holds his wrist. Tenderness, concern, protection is present in every line of her body as she sits close to him.
Sorolla died at his daughter’s house in 1923, aged only 60. He produced a prodigious amount of work, and was famous in his lifetime. His murals for the Hispanic Society are gargantuan works, full of detail and color of a past time. But I’m convinced that Sorolla’s heart was in his depictions of the quiet moment. In capturing a scene, he transmits so much more: the smell of a trailing jasmine, a person’s anxiety as she awaits the return of someone dear, the abstractedly philosophical thoughts that flood everyone as they look at to sea, the pure joy of sun-warmed water on one’s back. His painting, titled simply “Madre”, shows a mother and her child lying together in a large bed, only their dark heads contrasting with the white of the covers and the pillows and the baby’s bonnet. The mother, half-asleep, is looking at the child with that mixture of love and exhaustion that any parent can identify with. The painting could well be titled, “Asleep At Last”. Small moments, nothing momentous happens, but those are the ones that make up our lives and memories.
The special exhibition on Clotilde closed in mid-October but now there’s another one centered on his garden paintings, mostly executed at the end of his career. Luminous, whitewashed, brimming with colorful flowers, these were painted for the pure joy of the scene, with no looming deadlines to be met.
Post by Clea.