It was in 1908 that the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorrolla (1863-1923) had his first exhibition in London, at the Grafton Galleries. The world’s greatest living painter, someone said of him. Others begged to differ. Now the National Gallery, more than a century on, has filled its subterranean galleries in the Sainsbury Wing (most of the walls are painted a sombre grey) with a major retrospective of his work. Does he deserve such exposure? No. It feels as if we are being force-fed with course after course of whipped cream and strawberries.
In spite of the fact that Sorrolla is widely described as Spain’s great Impressionist, that label is a careless misnomer. He is essentially a painter in the realist tradition of the nineteenth century. One painting makes this clear. It is called ‘Burgos Cathedral under Snow’ (1910), and it is about as far removed from Monet’s cycle of paintings of the west front of Rouen Cathedral as you could possibly find. The man simply lacks the touch, the painterly penetration, the fineness of brushwork. He is incapable of seeing with any degree of real sensitivity. What is more, he does not create a new reality by way of a profound analysis of the effects of light.
He loves the dappling of sunlight, true enough, but Sorrolla’s sunlight is nothing but a form of mood enhancement, a species of prettification, an adjunct (usually) to the depiction of the leisurely social. There are moments when Sorrolla does not paint the jolly, beach-hugging, wind-teased, wave-thrashing rompings of the rich, young and old, but they seldom convince. There are also moments when he doffs his hat gravely towards the Spanish masters of his yesteryear – Goya and Velasquez, for example – but only occasionally does he hit the note of gravity required of him. In a fine, sombre, psychologically searching portrait of the painter ‘Aureliano de Beruete’ (1902), for example.
1909 was Sorrolla’s big bucks’ year. Having been discovered by a rich American philanthropist called Archer Milton Huntington, three hundred and sixty five of his works went on sale at an exhibition in the USA. One hundred and ninety five of them sold. President Taft commissioned a portrait from him. Sorolla became a very rich man indeed. Huntington commissioned him to decorate the walls of the palatial library of the Hispanic Society of New York City (all seventy metres of them) with scenes evocative of his country. Sorrolla travelled around Spain looking for typical Spaniards up to their timeless rituals – getting married, for example. The result is dire, wooden, the paintings of a tired anthropologist far outside the range of his comfort zone. The subjects he dresses up to look the part stare back sullenly – or vacantly. How many pesetas did he toss into the waiting sombreros by way of thanks?
At best, Sorrolla is a kind of slick, virtuoso snapper of a painter, seldom more than skin-deep, seldom more than whimsically feather-light, a creator of pleasant noises off. The captions to the paintings seem to do their utmost to praise him, but the range of words available is limited. Could the writer have been stifling a yawn from time to time? The biggest question of all though is this: what in heaven’s name possessed the National Gallery to put on this show? Even we miserable, confused, brexit-broken Brits can do without this degree of condescension. There’s no hard-biting into whipped cream.
Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light is at the National Gallery, London until 7 July 2019