Sorolla was a tightly-wound man. He spoke in a loud voice. He did things big. Possessed by painting, he worked constantly. Stress began to take a toll on his health in his late 50’s. His arms quivered and shook while painting until he was no longer able to hold a brush.
One day, while working on a portrait of a friend’s wife in his garden, Sorolla suffered a massive stroke paralyzing one side of his face and his right arm. Unable to hold a brush, he gave up painting entirely over the last three years of his life. His family moved him to the shore in hopes of restoring his health, but it didn’t work. Sorolla died on February 20, 1923, a week before his 60th birthday.
The large panels he painted for the Huntington commission remained in storage during his prolonged illness from 1920 through 1923. His wife and lifelong business manager, Clotilde, refused to have him declared incompetent while he was still alive though he was unable to sign or give legal consent, to release the paintings. Unable to collect his final compensation, they remained crated in Spain in darkness. After his death, eventually his estate was settled and the works were shipped to New York. But, it would be another six years until the great hall was built and the panels installed in the new annex.
Sorolla’s other work, by now in family and private collections, or bequeathed to Spain in return for a dedicated national museum, languished without an audience for almost a generation while the art world moved on during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.
Attempts were made to reintroduce the artist’s work to a new generation, but nothing made a lasting impact until a 50th-anniversary retrospective organized in memory of Sorolla’s death that captured the public’s imagination again. It was the beginning of a gradual resurging interest.
Many multi-institution traveling exhibitions have been organized over the last four decades and with each one, Sorolla’s work finds a new and appreciative audience. However, his “magnum opus”, the permanent installation in the aging Hispanic Society of America’s museum, hobbles the opportunity for many to experience his greatest achievement unless they travel to New York and seek it out as I did.
Representational painting after the turn of the twentieth century fell into disfavor with a concurrent gradual acceptance of some photography as fine art over the last century. Minimalism, abstract expressionism, and conceptual art pushed narrative painting into a category sometimes associated with illustrators such as Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parish, and N. C. and Andrew Wyeth to name just a few.
While no one is comparing Sorolla to Norman Rockwell, images that depict people in natural light, in a specific time and place, compete for an audience who desire and collect narrative realism.
As a result of the fragmentation of art and culture we are witnessing today, narrative realism has found a much smaller, but, robust market. As this market continues to mature and rediscovers its roots, Joaquin Sorolla will undoubtedly be enshrined as one of it’s most gifted artists.