‘Spanish Light: Sorolla in American Collections’ Shines at the Meadows Museum

In 1909, the Hispanic Society of America in New York City hosted a landmark solo exhibition of Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla’s works. By all contemporary accounts it was a complete triumph. “Nothing like it had ever happened in New York,” wrote Archer Huntingdon, founder of the Hispanic Society and one of Sorolla’s greatest champions and patrons. “Ohs and Ahs stained the tile floors. Automobiles blocked the street.” Half of the 350 paintings from that initial exhibition were sold. Major commissions followed, including a portrait of President William Howard Taft.

The eternal sunlight of Sorolla’s canvases has dazzled viewers for more than a century. Despite art historical trends in the early 20th century that contributed to the decline in interest in Sorolla’s works, the legacy of the artist’s popularity in America continues today. Outside of Spain, American collections hold the greatest number of Sorolla’s works and some of the most significant.

On the centennial anniversary of Sorolla’s death, the Meadows Museum is participating in a worldwide celebration of the artist, dubbed “Year of Sorolla” by Spain’s Ministry of Culture, with the exhibition Spanish Light: Sorolla in American Collections (Sept. 17, 2023-Jan.7, 2024). The exhibition is curated by Blanca Pons-Sorolla, renowned Sorolla scholar and the artist’s great-granddaughter. “Apart from the familial relationship, Blanca is the foremost scholar on Sorolla alive,” says Amanda Dotseth, Linda P. and William A. Custard Director of the Meadows Museum. “She has been documenting all of Sorolla’s works and keeping track of their location.”

Pons-Sorolla has spent nearly 40 years of her life dedicated to the study of her great-grandfather’s oeuvre, preparing an extensive catalog raisonné which will include some 4200 works. She was also responsible for curating Sorolla and America (Meadows Museum, 2013-2014), the first major exhibition to examine the significance of Sorolla’s relationship with America, both professionally and personally.

The 27 paintings in Spanish Light represent about half of Sorolla’s paintings in private collections in the U.S. “It is a sample of great quality and diversity of themes, the majority of which are unknown to the general public,” says Pons-Sorolla. The exhibition is organized thematically, beginning with nudes and portraits, moving to landscapes and gardens of various regions of Spain, and ending with sea scenes of work and leisure.

Light permeates every painting on the wall. The luminous Female Nude (1902) that opens the exhibition pays homage to the great Spanish master Diego Velázquez. It is also an intimate tribute to Sorolla’s wife and muse Clotilde. Her elegant body comes into focus against the striking backdrop of a pink satin spread, its soft sheen reflecting a sensuous light.

The portraits in the next room are in a wide variety of modes, a testament to an artist who was always experimenting and never followed a single approach. The early watercolor Valencian Woman at the Window (1889) is in the style of costumbrismo; a direct close-up study of King Alfonso XIII displays gestural immediacy; the joyous depiction of Elenita Dressed as a Menina (1903) shows great freedom in the loose brushstrokes and a mastery of color and light; while the boldly modern Portrait of Esperanza Conill de Zanetti (1909) has often been compared to John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, with its high contrast of pale skin and taut black dress.

Sorolla’s love of Spain and its natural beauty nourished his passion for depicting the distinctive qualities of light in the landscapes and gardens of different regions in Spain—Galicia, Castile, Valencia, Andalusia, Aragon, and the Basque Country. He confidently captures the strong contrast of light and shadow in the Pines of Galicia (1900), the verdant beauty of an orange grove in Farmhouse of Alcira (1903), the saturated greens and blues in the reflection on the waters of the Tagus River in Shadow of the Alcántara Bridge, Toledo (1906), and the chromatic hues of lush gardens in Granada.

Some of Sorolla’s most emblematic works are of the sea. The emphasis on this particular genre in the exhibition clearly reflects the theme’s enduring popularity with American collectors. Sorolla spent many fruitful summers on the beaches of Valencia with his family. Some of his most joyous paintings are of children, including his own, playing at the beach. Sorolla displays all his magic on these canvases, capturing the blinding light of the Mediterranean, the movement of white sails billowing in the wind, and the vibrations of the waters in a symphony of colors. In particular, the paintings of the sea at Jávea, where the artist first visited in the summer of 1905, are a revelation. The coastline here is rocky and the waters transparent. Bold brushstrokes filled with myriad colors set the deep-toned waters alight in a swirl of movement. In the masterpiece White Boat (1905), two boys tug on the rope anchoring the boat, their lithe bodies, free in the transparent waters, exude pure innocence and joy.

Pons-Sorolla has meticulously outlined the provenance of each painting in this magnificent exhibition. The Meadows Museum has a long history of exhibiting Sorolla’s works. The painting View of Las Pedrizas from El Pardo (1907) was the only Sorolla painting that Algur Meadows, founder of the museum, purchased for his own private collection. “We decided to include this piece to help contextualize the works on display,” says Dotseth. “It was in an American private collection before it entered the Meadows, so it’s a really good representative of how the status of a work changes.”

One of the most poignant images in the exhibition is also the latest work represented. Detail of the Garden of the Sorolla House (1918), painted five years before the artist’s death, shows a shady corner of the garden at Sorolla’s Madrid residence, now Museo Sorolla. The light dances on a column, a statue, a brick wall, and flowering vines. Inspired by his visits to the gardens in Granada and elsewhere, Sorolla created a timeless space that became for him an inexhaustible source of inspiration and pure pleasure. “It was very self-consciously designed so he can depict different kinds of light and shadow and plants,” explains Dotseth. “He built it knowing he was going to paint it and he returned to it over and over.”

Sorolla suffered a stroke in 1920 in his garden while painting a portrait of Señora Pérez de Ayala. He lost his ability to paint in the last years of his life. When asked what she would like viewers to take away from visiting the exhibition, Pons-Sorolla replies, “from a technical standpoint, the magic of light in his works, his marvelous mastery of color, the confidence of his brushstroke, and the modern feeling of his composition.” But perhaps more importantly, she continues, “his passion for life and nature.”