The National Gallery hosts Spanish impressionist Joaquín Sorolla in his first UK appearance in over a century. This exhibition features highlights from across his career including family portraits, renditions of rural Spanish life, and his best-known work, his beach scenes.
Walking round this exhibition it’s a wonder Sorolla isn’t more famous. I only found out about him a couple of months ago (on an “artwork-a-day” calendar) and I’ve not come across anyone else who’s aware of him since.
His versatility is astounding, with paintings which employ the splotchy approximations of reality that are most reminiscent of impressionism (at least for me) but elsewhere near photo quality realism. In some of his paintings the two are combined, such as in a striking self-portrait in which the highly detailed face appears to stare straight out at us, with the blurry surroundings serving to draw our attention to his stern expression.
He has an uncanny ability to capture fleetingly fast movement and intimate moments with incredible attention to detail: children playing in the water, smugglers climbing up a cliff face, the death of a fisherman in a cramped hull. And the exhibition really transports you to Spain, with his scenes from rural Spanish life, landscapes (particular on the coast of San Sebastien) and even his own beautiful garden. Many of his paintings are vast, and really benefit from a real-life viewing.
But as the exhibition’s title suggests, what’s really remarkable is his mastery of light. In one example he paints a building almost entirely through its reflection in a pond, and in another he uses blurred approximations to perfectly capture a dazzling midday sun. But the pièce de résistance for me was a sail-sewing scene where the sunlight, fractured through through vines, lands on the white folds of the sail. The painting is utterly breathtaking and is well worth the price of entry to see that alone.
Sorolla: Masters of Light is at the National Gallery until 7 July.