The Hispanic Society’s founder, Archer Huntington, was an American scholar and philanthropist fascinated by Spanish culture. So he started collecting Spanish books, decorative art, sculpture, prints, and painting, forming the backbone of the museum’s extensive collection at an early age.
Huntington commissioned Sorolla to paint “his vision of Spain” for permanent installation in 1908. After careful planning and negotiations, Sorolla began work on it in 1911. He completed it in 1920. It was the last major work he was ever to paint, and, in his own words, “it nearly killed me.”
Through my research, I was not unprepared to enter this vast gallery. Nevertheless, I gasped uncontrollably and audibly when I did. Thankfully, I was alone. The visual effect of the space was so powerful that my brain struggled to grasp it. A wide array of life-sized characters in brilliant costumes, farm animals, animals in costume, people, laughing, dancing, riding, working, and parading in a sun-dappled land– and seascapes surrounded me.
Each of the 14 large pictures, representing the fourteen provinces of Spain, was painted en plain air in the region represented. Employing a phalanx of models working in two shifts along with a team of assistants to shield the enormous canvases from direct sunlight using bedsheets as the painter worked his magic. The western wall of the permanent installation displays one massive scene painted on six canvases measuring in total 46 feet wide by 12 feet tall (Castille, The Bread Festival, 1913).
Installed on the south wall is a magnificent picture called The Tuna Catch, Ayamonte, 1919. It is the last of the large panels painted for the Huntington commission, and to my eye, it is the most technically refined.
It’s several extraordinary depictions of men contorted by pulling and straining against the dead weight of tuna carcasses while simultaneously slipping on the wet blood-soaked wharf. This picture delivers a moment in time even the most keen-eyed photographer could entirely miss if delayed even by a fraction of a second.
The far-right end of the composition further contrasts the hard-working fisherman with the figures of three navy sailors standing at ease in their crisp white uniforms. With more than a dozen people in the scene, the main character is the sunlight that binds these faceless foreshortened humans and dead fish together in a pitched struggle against time and gravity.