Before Picasso, Joaquin Sorolla was America’s favorite Spanish artist

DALLAS – “The air everywhere was full of wonder,” it said the American philanthropist Archer M. Huntington for the first major exhibition of the Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida in the United States in 1909. “Nothing like this had ever happened in New York,” Huntington continued, “The Oohs and Ahs stained the tiles. Cars blocked the street. Sorolla had already achieved success from his teenage years in his home country, but his career reached new heights in the US and eventually provided him with the financial security that allowed him the creative freedom he had not had before. As the late Spanish art historian Mark Roglan noted of Sorolla in 2014, “The success he achieved in this country was unmatched by any other Spanish artist until the arrival of Pablo Ruiz Picasso.”

Today, Sorolla is not as well known in the US as Picasso, but an exhibition at the Meadows Museum in Dallas makes a compelling case that he should be. Spanish Light: Sorolla in American Collections presents 26 rarely exhibited paintings by the artist from private collections in the United States, curator of Blanca Pons-Sorolla, great-granddaughter of the artist and a notable scholar of his work. The exhibition explores the legacy of Sorolla’s explosive American debut, tracing the ways in which his paintings have changed hands in the decades since. Exhibition scholarship reveals artworks’ original purchase prices and sometimes complex trajectories through legacies, auctions, and other events. more importantly, Spanish light offers American 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.

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, The White Boat (El boto blanco. Jávea) (1905), oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 59 inches
(all photos courtesy of personal archive, Blanca Pons-Sorolla, Madrid, unless otherwise noted)

His exhibition at the Hispanic Society of America in New York—the show Huntington described in his letter—was perhaps 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 pocket notebooks. The artist sold about 300 works from his exhibition in New York and stayed 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 in Chicago and St. Louis.

Spanish light is a fitting title for the Meadows Museum’s reappraisal of the artist’s legacy. Sorolla was famous in his day for his luminous, light-filled paintings of beaches and gardens. According to the catalog, Hispanic Society curator Christian Brinton called Sorolla’s works were “a jubilant symphony of sunlight” in 1909, and the French writer Henri Rochefort proclaimed, “I don’t know any other brush that contains so much sun.” These observations are especially true in Sorolla’s famous beach scenes. Often painted in his native Valencia, these works reveal the artist’s delight in capturing the sun on every surface he touches, from playing children to boat sails to slippery sand and small waves. Pieces like The White Boat (El bote blanco. Jávea) (1905) are an absolute marvel: Sorolla’s confident, sweeping brushstrokes superbly capture a fleeting, joyous moment in the water with an infinity of blues and greens.

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Children Bathing Among the Rocks, Javea (1905), oil on canvas, 13 x 24 3/4 inches

Each artwork is accompanied by a text explaining the history of the piece as both a painting and a collectible. Some have stayed with 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 catalog essay by art historian Christina Domenech traces how American collecting trends have changed as larger trends in art have changed and as Sorolla has gained or lost institutional attention.

It’s fascinating to learn how much these canvases were paid for and to think how sales and patrons have supported the artist and his reputation over the years. However, the greatest benefit of this show is simply that it affords visitors the opportunity to experience so many of Sorolla’s dazzling paintings together at once. The Meadows exhibit may not have the same buzz as Sorolla’s original show in 1909, but it’s still worth a visit.

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Valencia Beach (Playa de Valencia) (1908), oil on canvas, 26 x 37 3/4 inches
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Children in the Sea, Valencia Beach (1908), oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 41 3/4 inches

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

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