• gerard van weyenbergh

Joachim Sorolla, walk by the sea 1909, explained

Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla manages to capture the dazzling light of the Mediterranean beaches in impressionist-inspired paintings that will make its international success in the early 20th century.

Historical context

Initially oriented towards social naturalism, Joaquín Sorolla evolved into Impressionism after a stay in Paris in 1885. At the beginning of the 20th century, he became the painter of light of Mediterranean or Atlantic beaches. Scenes of bathing, walking, or representing fishermen's work are treated as studies of shadow-light contrast. This painting of the happiness of living where all is light and reflections will be called luminism.

Luminism is a variant of Impressionism that developed at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th in several countries: the United States, Belgium, Spain. As the word itself indicates, it is a question of translating light into touches of paint, an exercise which goes back much further in time. Renaissance artists already had the ambition to represent the effects of light and succeeded very well, as this Madonna of the Meadows (1505) by Giovanni Bellini shows.

Certain works may have influenced Sorolla by Claude Monet. As early as the 1870s, Monet was producing artworks intended primarily to capture light, whose kinship with Sorolla's style is striking.

Before his luminist orientation, Sorolla was already known to art lovers and had even received prizes in international exhibitions. But his luminist paintings will have considerable success, no doubt because they accurately represent a geographical reality: the dazzling light of Mediterranean beaches and its reflections on the water.

Even if the expression is no longer used, the luminist style remains at the beginning of the 21st century. American artist Steve Hanks (1849-2015) succeeded in making watercolor images that were only light.

Analysis of the work

The painting, titled in Spanish Paseo a orillas del mar , was painted in Valencia in the summer of 1909. It depicts the painter's wife, Clotilde Garcia del Castillo, holding an umbrella, and their daughter María Clotilde. Clotilde is forty-four, María Clotilde nineteen. They walk at sunset on the beach, and the sea breeze blows the curtains of their clothes. Their elegance immediately strikes the observer. Their aristocratic stature comes from their body language, loose clothing of immaculate white, and large hats with wide brims.

The bird's-eye view places the spectator and the artist in height, a few meters from the two women. It is a compositional artifice that can easily be experienced with a few preliminary photographs. Sorolla eliminates the horizon line and dissociates the large square painting of two meters side in two parts separated by the diagonal. At the top left, the sea imposes a cold color, blue. Below right, the ocher sand of the beach allows the painter to use a complementary color. This very old process of juxtaposing colors produces a luminous effect on the human optical system. It had been scientifically studied in 19th century by chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889), who had called color of simultaneous contrast law. The juxtaposition of two complementary color ranges increases the perception of the difference in brightness. On the other hand, if the two color ranges are moved away from one another, the optical phenomenon does not occur.

The very photographic framing is also manifested by Clotilde's hat, cut by the painting's upper edge. Here again, as with complementary colors, artistic practice preceded science and technology. Baroque painting, born in the late 16th century, focused on one element of a larger scene by cutting some of the elements shown at the edge of the fabric (for example, Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul, 1600).

Sorolla's chromatic virtuosity is manifested above all by a complex use of whites. From a distance, white appears dazzling against the blue sea and ocher background of the sand. But as you get closer, multiple shades of yellow, blue, pink, or gray become noticeable:

The attachment to Impressionism appears, particularly in the faces. Fauvism or Cubism, which was born at this time, have no influence here. They would have distorted the features of the faces. The precepts of classicism are also discarded since they imposed a meticulous treatment of details and smoothing the surface. Sorolla achieves a simple evocation of faces with touches of various colors that keep the blurry. As you move away, an "impression" emerges; it constitutes the artist's perception and not a representation that wants to be faithful.

Another impressionist characteristic must be pointed out: the painting of transience. The two women walk past us, and the painter seems to have caught them instantly, as if it were a simple photograph. But we know by observing the canvas that the framing, colors, and light come from a long reflection, a particular sensitivity, and a singular gaze.

Sorolla attached importance to this painting which he never sold. He will send it after the death of his wife to the Sorolla Museum in Madrid.

© Patrick Aulnas, Rivage de Boheme.