I have said on a number of occasions that when one is in a large city which has one or maybe two famous large art museums, and when one is time-limited, one should search around and look for a smaller gallery which may have hidden treasures to offer. The art on display in smaller museums can be taken in on one visit and there is no feeling of having to rush from room to room, constantly looking at ones watch to try and see as much as one can and ultimately seeing very little. Madrid is famous for its three large art museums the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Queen Sophie but once again thanks to my daughter, who was my travelling companion on this trip, I discovered a pure gem of a museum – The Sorolla, which was just a few stops on the Metro from the city centre. In my blogs I want to offer you a taste of what you would get if you visit the museum dedicated to one of Spain’s best loved artists, show you some of the Spanish painters work and look at his life story.
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida was born into a humble household in Valencia in February 1863. His parents were Joaquín Sorolla Gascón and Concepción Bastida who were retailers. Joaquín and his younger sister Concha were orphaned in 1865 when both their parents died from the cholera epidemic which had swept through and ravaged the Spanish city. Joaquín and Concha went to live with their maternal aunt, Isabel Bastida and her husband José Piqueres, a locksmith by trade. Joaquín’s early schooling was not a success with the young boy being inattentive during lessons and was happy to doodle and draw in his exercise books to pass the time away. His lack of progress at the school came to the attention of his uncle who withdrew him and took him on as an apprentice at his workshop. However, owing to his love of drawing, when Joaquín was fourteen years old, his uncle arranged for him to attend drawing classes in the evening at the city’s Escuelade Artesanos where his artistic ability astounded his teachers, including the sculptor Cayetano Capuz. The following year, 1878, he enrolled on a three-year course at Valencia’s prestigious Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Carlos. It was whilst attending the art school that he met and became friends with a fellow student, Juan Antonio Perez. He was soon introduced to Juan’s family. Juan’s father, Antonio Garcia Perez was a photographer and was very impressed with Sorolla’s art work, so much so that he gave him a job at his photography studio as an illuminator. This opportunity allowed Sorolla to leave his uncle’s workshop and concentrate on his artwork and discover the world of photography. He learnt all about the framing of a subject and the manipulation of light which would prove a boon to him when he started to paint seaside and beach scenes. This “new world” of photography fascinated many artists of the time and the likes of the French pair of Impressionists, Degas and Caillebotte were accomplished amateur photographers.
Joaquín won many awards whilst studying at Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Carlos and at the end of his time there, and buoyed by his success, he sent off three seascapes to the Madrid National Exhibition. He travelled to Madrid on a couple of occasions and visited the Prado where he painted copies of the great Masters. In 1884, in the hope of attaining a monetary scholarship from the Valencia Provincial Council, he submitted a number of paintings to them, one of which was entitled The Shout of the Palleter, which was a historical painting recording the event in Valencia when one of its inhabitants Vincent Doménech in 1808, incensed by the French occupation of his country stood in the square urging people to rebel against the French tyranny. He uttered his famous words:
“…Jo, Vicent Doménech, un pobre palleter, li declare la guerra a Napoleó. ¡Vixca Ferran sèptim! ¡Muiguen els traïdors!…”
(I, Vincent Doménech, a poor and simple worker, declare war against Napoleon. Long live Ferdinand. Death to the traitors.)
Sorolla painted the picture in the bullring of Valencia which he transformed into a huge studio and which was bathed in brilliant sunlight. The stage-managed scene was a triumph and the Valencia Provincial Council awarded him a three-year scholarship to study art at the Spanish Academy in Rome.
One of the conditions attached to the scholarship was that he regularly sent back work to the Council to prove that he was making good use of his time. One of the paintings he duly sent back to Valencia was his 1887 work entitled Father Jofré Protecting a Madman. This historical painting was based on the story of Father Joan-Gilabert Jofré, a friar of the Valencian Mercedarian Order, who, on February 24, 1409, was on his way from the convent of the Plaza de la Merced to the Cathedral of Valencia. On his way there he passed along the street of Martín Mengod, the ancient street of the silver workers, next to the church of Santa Catalina. On entering the street he was greeted with a great commotion. Before him, he saw a group of children who were hitting and making fun of a mentally ill man who lay on the ground before them. In those days it was believed by many that somebody who was mentally ill was possessed by the devil. Father Jofré immediately berated the children and took the helpless man with him to the convent of the Order of Mercy, where he was given shelter and cure for his wounds. Father Jofré would go on to found the world’s first lunatic asylum.
After his three year scholarship came to an end, Joaquín Sorolla continued to live in Rome and for a time in Assisi but on two occasions between 1885 and 1889 he returns to his home city of Valencia.
…….to be continued.