Never Heard of Him

Joaquin Sorolla, “A La Sombra de la Barca, Valencia” (1903-04) — Museo Sorolla, Madrid

On our way into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, a tourist near us showed his admission ticket to his companion.  Printed on the stub was one of Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers.  The man said to his friend, “This is the picture over our kitchen sink.  It’s a copy.”

That clarification seemed unnecessary, but a hundred years ago it would have been possible to put an original Van Gogh over one’s kitchen sink.  Critics and art dealers didn’t decide his work was worth owning until the early 20th century, so Vincent missed out on the lavish acclaim that has been heaped on his work since.  There have been other artists — Paul Cezanne, just to name one — for whom success also came posthumously.

On the other hand, there are painters who were widely admired during their lifetimes, but were consigned to obscurity afterward.  You may be familiar with the work of an 18th-century genre and still-life painter named Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, who was King Louis XV’s favorite artist.  Chardin has been forgotten and then rediscovered a couple of times, most recently in the mid-20th century.  In case you’re keeping score, he is currently considered a genius.

An artist whose work I recently stumbled upon (and they should be more careful about putting stuff where you can stumble on it) is a Spanish painter named Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida.  He is more commonly known as Joaquin Sorolla — but it may be stretching a point to say that he is “commonly known”.  Have you ever heard of Sorolla?

Until a year or so ago I hadn’t, but our friend Susie tipped us off before a visit to Madrid, where he still seems to have a following.

An orphan at the age of two, Sorolla showed early promise as an artist and by his late 20s — in the 1890s — he was receiving international acclaim.  In the early 20th century, exhibitions of his work were garnering praise and generating commissions, including a portrait of the U.S. president, William Howard Taft, that was painted in the White House.

Sorolla’s portraits have a lot of charm, but he was equally adept at landscape and genre painting.  There was a lot of sunshine in his palette, and my favorite works by Sorolla are scenes at the edge of the ocean, many painted on the beach at Valencia.

Sorolla’s style might be characterized as somewhere between Realism and Impressionism, more loosely rendered than the paintings of his friend John Singer Sargent, whose reputation has lasted longer.

Soon after Sorolla’s death in 1923, his fame began to decline.  In the art world, immortality doesn’t always last forever.  It’s probably not a coincidence that Van Gogh’s reputation soared around the same time that Sorolla’s receded, because critics and the public were chasing after the next new thing, which at that time was Post-Impressionism.

It doesn’t seem likely that Van Gogh’s fame will vanish, since there are so many reproductions of his work over kitchen sinks.  It would be nice, though, if the world rediscovers Joaquin Sorolla — that guy could paint.

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13 responses to “Never Heard of Him

  1. Some of his favorite subjects were his spouse and children. It was obvious from his paintings that he loved his family.

  2. Ok I will look him up. Do you have anything over your sink?

  3. Sorolla is one of the most-admired painters by representational painters today. So, he’s been discovered by the artists; it might be just that the non-artists have yet to discover him.

    • True. But it will probably take a major museum organizing an exhibition of his work to bring him to the attention of the general public. A first step was the show that the Thyssen-Bornemisza (Madrid) put together a few years ago, but if the Met or the Tate or the Orsay was involved, Sorolla would become a household name.

  4. I should add – and thank you for helping to bring him into the light for the rest of the world!

    • Well, I don’t know about the rest of the world — but at least now there are a few hundred more people who know about Joaquin Sorolla. Thanks for your comments!.

  5. Your own work is excellent, Michael — I have been on your website and particularly admired the paintings of the American Southwest. I must say, you found some precarious places to set up your easel!

  6. Wow! I looked up Sorolla to see more of his work and was in joyful awe. Thanks for bringing attention to such a pleasure.

    • I don’t know how I overlooked his work in the past, because lots of museums have Sorolla paintings — I think the Getty has several, in fact.

  7. During a vacation to Europe several years ago, one of our last stops was the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Our visit occurred at the very end of our vacation and we made the common traveler’s mistake of trying to wedge too many events into one day.

    While in Amsterdam a week before, we had learned the Van Gogh Museum was closed for renovation. As they say in french, “tant pis!”

    Our arrival at the Musee occurred about two hours before closing. As we perused the museum road map, we realized it was a triage situation. We decided to skip to the 19th century Impressionists. After viewing some minor and major artists of this period, I entered a room with four walls covered with Van Gogh works. Previously in classrooms, library and the Internet, I had gazed at reproductions of his many famous works. They are only ghosts of the originals. The luster and intensity of the room screamed with a vibrancy that was enhanced by the impasto style used in many of his works.

    As I regained my composure to take in one work at a time, I reflected. What is it that drives a man to passionately immerse himself in an activity where reward consisted of a handful of francs? With the net worth of these paintings, could France pay off a meaningful part of their National debt?
    Gosh, these paintings are naked-no glass. That one guard doesn’t look as if he’s got the moxie to prevent one of these jewels from being defaced. My mind whirled like the semi-circle strokes Van Gogh favored for some of his skies. As I exited, I made for another destination.

    When I was twelve, my family and I moved to France courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. My father was stationed in Fontainebleau at a NATO base. We took up residence in a petit village less than 10 miles away.

    Moret-sur-Loing is your archetypical picture postcard french village. Situated by a mostly well behaved river, the town dates to the 12th century. On the highest point of the city sits a cathedral named Notre Dame, a compact version of its much larger gothic neighbor 60 kilometers to the north. To this day, on many summer weekends you will find an artist or three painting from their chosen vantage point.

    About 1880, a certain Alfred Sisley took up residence in Moret. Failing to follow his father’s footsteps in business, he decided to paint and Moret was his last stop before he died in 1899. Like Van Gogh, he labored in obscurity supported for most of his life by a small allowance provided by son pere.

    Now, his works are found in the Musee d’Orsay as well as many other notable museums. Sisley is now regarded as one of the best plein air impressionist artists. I feel a special connection to the many paintings and drawings he created in Moret because I know the streets and locales from two years of living there.

    Dad’s subsidy was a good investment…just a bit early.

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