Seeking Sorolla, and his techinque

Sep 24, 2023 | Cutural Heritage, Exhibitions, Studies and Projects

In 2023 the art world celebrates one of the most exceptional artists in Spanish history: Joaquín Sorolla. If you don’t know him, don’t be surprised: despite being defined during his lifetime as “the greatest painter in the world”, e.g. Italy celebrated his art with an exhibition for the first time in 2022.

Not having had the opportunity to admire his works in the Milanese exhibition, this summer we went to discover the secrets of his art in Spain, Valencia, Madrid and even Toledo.

In Spain Sorolla left an indelible mark, and this year we were able to visit seven spaces dedicated to him, including permanent exhibitions and museums. In each place, we immersed ourselves in his art in search of clues and details that could reveal the secrets of his painting technique.

One of the most intriguing exhibitions was “Sorolla en Negro”, in Valencia. Here, we could admire how Sorolla mastered the use of black in an amazing way. While black seems like a limiting color, Sorolla transformed it into an infinite range of shades. For example, in the painting “Portrait of Clotilde Garcia del Castille,” the black of the Spanish mantilla lace is rendered so realistically that it seems almost possible to touch it and feel its texture, all thanks to his extraordinary painting technique.

A diagnostic investigation would have allowed us to know everything about how he arrived at these compositions, but even without the aid of advanced instrumentation, it was possible to grasp some fundamental aspects of his technique.

The use of drawing and correction marks are evident even to the naked eye, especially to the eyes of an expert diagnostician. See for example a repentance in the work “Ritratto de Jean Antonio Garcia del Castillo” and a slip of color due to a layer of underlying pictorial film that is still not dry observable on “Clotilde en el studio”.

Portrait de Jean Antonio Garcia del Castillo, by Sorolla. Here we can notice a “pentimento”

Valencia also offered us the rare opportunity to explore another hidden side of Sorolla’s art. Inside the Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibition dedicated to the paintings of the Masaveu Collection showcased what is rarely shown: the backs of the works. We could see frames, canvases, labels, stamps and even the canvas itself before painting, in its natural aging process. This was made possible by the fact that the paintings are anchored to thick glass panels housed in stone and wood plinths. Thanks to this opportunity, we discovered that “Estudio para sad herencia!” was painted on photographic cardboard and that the “Portrait of Ernest Coquelin Cader,” a famous French actor, was painted while Sorolla was in Paris, with the canvas purchased in the same city from an art supplies store.

In Madrid, Sorolla was celebrated at the Royal Palace with the exhibition “Sorolla through light“. This exhibition also offers an immersive virtual experience with scenes from Sorolla’s paintings, where certain details seem to come to life. The journey ends by also showing details from his house in Madrid, such as vases full of brushes and antique objects.

Finally, after having collected a large set of images of the smallest details of his painting, his crests of color and his blades of light, we found a publication of particular interest. This work presents a 360-degree analysis of a self-portrait by Sorolla, combining stylistic, conservative and scientific aspects. Inside, there are technical details, reflectographic images and data resulting from chemical analyses. We discover that Sorolla used the pigment Chrysocolla, known as “golden glue,” to obtain a particularly fascinating blue/green.

In short, if it wasn’t already clear, we can say that Sorolla has completely enchanted us. His art is a fascinating world that continues to reveal new secrets and details with each exploration. We can’t help but continue to search and admire the beauty of his works, and who knows, one might arrive in the laboratory!

Emanuela Massa
Emanuela Massa