Until six years ago we had never heard of Joaquin Sorolla (1863–1923). We were in Bilbao on a cool and gloomy day in late May. Nowadays, ‘Bilbao’ means Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim. As a piece of gigantic urban sculpture the ‘Gugg’ is pretty good, even if it does feel uncomfortably squeezed under a monumental road bridge. But there’s another reason to visit Bilbao: the Museo de Bellas Artes, a five minute walk away. After the Gugg, Bellas Artes is the second most popular art museum in the Basque country, with a comprehensive collection of European art of all ages. We went straight to the gallery devoted to early 20th century painting and were bowled over by the large, bold, painterly images, full of light and movement. The painter who had captured our imagination was Joaquin Sorolla. (We learned later that a permanent Sorolla gallery had just been opened.)
Born in Valencia in 1863, Sorolla was orphaned at two years of age. He was brought up by his uncle who, recognising and encouraging his gifts, sent him to the School of Fine Arts in Valencia. Moving to Madrid to further his studies, he was awarded a grant which enabled him to study painting in Rome and, later, in Paris. His vision evolved rapidly, from the prevailing late-19th-century academic style, to create paintings full of light vivacity and movement. It’s a kind of impressionism (he was essentially a plein air painter) but benefiting from the academic skills that had been absorbed in his youth. The good news is that, much as we might like to go to Bilbao, Madrid or Valencia to see his work, we don’t have to. The National Gallery in London currently has an exhibition of Sorolla’s work, continuing until 7 July. Take a look at their web site for Soralla exhibition information. Or, for a well-informed study of Sorolla, look at the article, Capturing Sunlight with Soralla, on the website of The Will Kemp School of Art.