This last month, I borrowed an incredibly valuable monograph on the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla (1863 – 1923) from a good artist-friend. I personally consider Sorolla to be the greatest oil painter of the 19th and 20th century, an artist who even surpassed Sargent and Zorn in every respect – and this is no small claim for anyone to make, let alone an unknown like me. Not widely recognized in our time, Sorolla is now being reassessed and elevated back into his proper place within the pantheon of Western European Art. Sorolla was able to paint a picture that literally appeared to emit light. Maybe this sounds simple, like showing the sun in your painting, but it is not. There is a well-received maxim tossed around us landscape painters, and it is that we can never paint the light we actually can see. Our paint won’t allow it. We can only paint the effect of the light we see. But Sorolla was the sole exception to this rule. Everyone’s first impulse upon viewing a painting by him is to raise their hand to block the sun from their eyes. The effect is that strong and it doesn’t matter if we look at a reproduction or at an original — our reaction is universal.
Here are some Google images if you want to experience his true awesomeness. And most of his work was large in scale:
Towards the end of the book, I came across a passage about the brain stroke that took away his ability to paint. Attempting to become a great painter requires playing the long game. It takes time, and to become truly exceptional it takes a lifetime. So how an artist ends up in their final years remains a fascination for me. Sorolla never recovered from that stroke, even though he lived another three years without producing any more paintings.
Here is a passage about his stroke, written by Ramon Perez de Ayala, husband of the subject, and witness to the event. (Excerpted from “Joaquin Sorolla” by Blanc Pons-Sorolla (his grandaughter), pps. 318 and 323, Phillip Wilson Publishers):
“A fine, warm morning in the month of June, in his garden, Sorolla was painting the portrait of my wife, and I was observing him from her side. The three of us were alone, under a branch-covered arbor. He got up and headed for his studio. Going up the steps, he fell. My wife and I went to his aid, thinking that he had stumbled. We helped him up, but he could not stand on his own. The left side of his face was contracted in a motionless gesture, a childlike and regretful gesture that inspired pain, pity, tenderness. We understood the dramatic truth; the extremely tight string had broken. Even so, and ever the rebel against the fatality that had already taken hold of his hand of iron, Sorolla wanted to go on painting. We tried to dissuade him, but in vain. He was obstinate and irritated, like a spoilt child whom someone, to his amazement, had contradicted. His palette was falling from his left hand; his right hand, with his brush badly held, was scarcely obeying him. He made four long and vacillating, desperate brushstrokes; four speechless screams, already from the threshold of another life. Pathetic, unforgettable brushstrokes! ‘I can’t go on’, he murmured, with tears in his eyes. He withdrew into himself, as if he were absorbed in the residue of the light of his intelligence, suddenly almost extinguished, by an absurd, invisible gust of wind, and he said: ‘So there’s one more imbecile, what does it matter to the world?’.”
Here is the painting Sorolla was working on when he suffered the stroke. I can’t find those vacillating strokes Ayala speaks of. Can you?
(Keep in mind that this was just an underpainting and not a fully completed work.)
What resonates with me most about this story is how Sorolla attempted to return back to the painting, even as he was experiencing the stroke. That is passion.
I am also amazed at his own acceptance of his fate.
Truly, a great artist.