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Joaquín Sorolla, 'The Return from Fishing', 1894, Paris, Musée d'Orsay

Joaquin Sorolla: The Most Famous Painter You’ve Never Heard Of

Perhaps Sorolla, (b. 1863—d. 1923), was not as well known as I’d thought. Why had history ignored him?

The Hispanic Society of America is located in Upper Manhattan on the west side of Broadway between 155th and 156th streets. Enter Audubon Terrace and proceed up the steps through the wrought iron gates. The Museum entrance is on the left, flanked by two limestone lions.

Recently, I painted a couple of scenes from my photos of our family relaxing on the beach in the strong afternoon sun. When I showed my work to Peter Fiore, a teacher/mentor and naturalistic painter whose work I regard highly, he said, “These are pretty good, but, you should really take a close look at Sorolla’s work. He’s a master of sunlight, beaches, and water.”

“Sorolla who?”, I asked.
“Joaquin Sorolla,” answered Peter incredulously. “Let me show you.”

Peter pulled out his phone and in just a few seconds, was scrolling through image after image of colorful sun-drenched fishermen, children frolicking in the surf, and powerful oxen dragging a billowing sail-powered fishing vessel onto the beach.

“There’s a magnificent collection of his paintings at the Hispanic Society of America on upper Broadway,” Peter advised. “I first saw them when I was 17 and they transformed my life.” “I’ll be going there,” I promised, as he shared one jewel-toned Sorolla picture after another with me on his iPhone.

Despite my degree in painting and innumerable art history classes, the output of this extraordinary Spanish artist had completely escaped my attention. If I had encountered Sorolla’s paintings in the past, I probably dismissed them as irrelevant to my own painterly interests at the time. No excuse; it was time to rectify this serious omission.

Shadow Master
First, I made a trip to my local public library. It has an admirable collection of beautiful art books. But, just two Sorolla titles came up in my search of the digital card catalog. Hmmm.

Perhaps Sorolla, (b. 1863—d. 1923), was not as well known as I’d thought from the cascade of Google images. Perhaps he was just never adequately represented in those eponymous monographs of artists’ “coffee table” books? Why had history ignored him?

I read the two books available through the library cover to cover; one published by the Museo del Prado, the other written by the artist’s great-granddaughter and published in London. It was clear, Joaquín Sorolla had been one of the most famous artists of the at the turn of the twentieth century. He’d won practically every medal of honor and achievement for painting that could be awarded in Europe. He was well known in the Netherlands. Sorolla was perhaps the most sought-after portraitist among the elite of the late 1800s even though portraiture was not his main endeavor.

Sorolla painted portraits of President Woodrow Wilson and celebrities such as Louis Comfort Tiffany to wide acclaim in the United States. He was a contemporary of and was friendly with, John Singer Sergeant, Anders Zorn, Edward Manet, and many other of the most admired painters of the day. And then, after his death in 1923, he fell headlong into obscurity.

Back to that shelf in the Greenwich Library— 759.6 is the Dewey decimal code for artist monographs. Within the range of books in that category—just one or two shelves above Sorolla’s two books—were seventeen thick volumes on Picasso!

What was going on here? Why hadn’t Sorolla, equally or even more popular than Picasso, received the amount of attention from the art world after his death that Picasso, Braque, Ernst, Duchamp, or any of the other of the pantheon of early twentieth-century artists? Had he simply been overshadowed by a deluge of non-representational or “modern” art? To find out, I needed to do more research. And I wanted to see Sorolla’s paintings for myself.

Mark Laurence LaRivière

Mark Laurence LaRivière

I'm a fine art painter and photographer who is always seeking to turn the ordinary into something extraordinary.

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