Few artists exemplify as well as Joaquín Sorolla the attraction for light at the start of Spain’s contemporary era. As an artist, he is best known for his sun-filled beach scenes in which the play of light on water becomes the subject matter. Sorolla was especially well-known for his ability to paint en plein air and to work quickly in order to capture the effect of light on sun, sand, figures and fabrics (fig. 1).
Olas is an apunte; small in scale and rapidly painted. These works should not be considered sketches, but are independent works not intended as studies for larger, more finished paintings. In these small and intimate paintings the true genius of the artist is made manifest. These apuntes are characterized by lively brushwork, an ability to render atmosphere and color with a great economy of means and to distill into their simplest form the qualities for which the artist is most famed.
In Olas, Sorolla concentrates on the play of light and shadow on water. The foreground of this charming work is dimmed in shadow while the breaking waves in the background explode into sunlight. The lack of a horizon line in the background as well as a shoreline in the foreground emphasizes the movement of the swirling and breaking waves and heightens the sense of intimacy for the viewer. The roiling water is depicted in all the colors of light, for the artist does not limit his palette to shades of blue and white. On this small board, Sorolla explores all of the colors of the prism as light is refracted through water, expressed in yellow, green, turquoise, lavender and pink.
Mariano Fortuny had reportedly invented a sketch box that many artists found to be enormously practical for plein air studies. Sorolla recalled that in 1875, one year after Fortuny’s death, the painter Joaquin Agrasot y Juan (1836-1919) had ‘introduced us to that small sketch box invented by Fortuny, a tremendously useful invention’ (quoted in B. Pons Sorolla and M. Roglan, exh. cat., Sorolla in America, San Diego, p. 223). A description of the box (fig. 2) follows:
‘The box was divided into two halves, joined with metal hinges. The lower part served as a palette, containing the paint and holder for small brushes. The upper part provided support for a small panel, and the box was held open by a system of metal struts sliding along a groove. Behind the supports for the panel being painted was a further series of slots, which could hold several other panels at the same time. This offered countless advantages, including the possibility of making several sketches in a single session, by keeping them separate from one another, thereby protecting them from dust and insects, and preventing them from sticking together and being ruined. The supports, generally of wood or cardboard, were inserted through an opening in the side, which explains why most artists, Sorolla included, hardly ever painted a sketch right up the edge, but instead left a thin, irregular border’ (Ibid., p. 223).
We are grateful to Blanca Pons-Sorolla for confirming the authenticity of this work.
(fig. 1) Joaquín Sorolla painting on the beach in Valencia
(fig 2.) Joaquín Sorolla's painting box