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.