Painted in 1908 when Joaquín Sorolla was at the height of his artistic powers and international fame, this atmospheric and fluid composition depicts a yacht race off the coast at Valencia, with a group of sailboats with their sails billowing in the breeze set upon the horizon line. An expressive snapshot which energetically renders the reflections, movement and intense colors of light and water, this painting displays all the hallmarks of the artist’s best canvases.
Sorolla is defined in the public imagination above all by his paintings of the beach and the activities, both of leisure and work, which took place upon it (fig. 1). As José Luis Diez writes; ‘an intense perception of the sea and shore was intrinsic to Sorolla’s artistic personality from the very start. The Mediterranean Sea that bordered his birthplace was always the horizon of his most personal and inner space…’ (Madrid, Museo del Prado, Joaquín Sorolla, exh. cat., 2009, p. 69).
The present work is notable for its broad, fluid brushstrokes which describe the shining waves with their white foaming crests cascading onto the beach. As in many of his works from this date, Sorolla has depicted the scene from a slight angle, and by cropping a small slice of the sandy beach on the right side of the composition he draws the viewer almost into the water itself. The composition consists of three horizontal registers corresponding to sea, sky and sand. The small strip of sand creates the borders of the foreground and gives the viewer the impression of actually standing on the beach with the surf lapping at one’s feet. The sea fills the entire middle ground, an area where figures are often depicted in Sorolla’s works. In this painting, the sea is the main character and is represented with all of the depth of color, movement and emotion that is evident in Sorolla’s beloved images of children playing in the waves. The racing sailboats draw the viewer’s eye through the entire composition and define the horizon line. The sea and ships are unified through the motion of the waves and the clear light of northern Spain. One can almost hear the waves, feel the breeze that fills the sails of the boats and absorb the shimmering heat of the sunlight on a bright summer’s day.
The catalogues of Sorolla’s 1909 and 1911 exhibitions in the United States indicate that the artist chose to exhibit a very large number of sea and beach scenes. Of the 303 works sold at the exhibition, 187 were beach scenes and of those, 85 were large or medium size paintings, while the remainder were apuntes, or small sketches. Clearly the exhibitions, and specifically the marine paintings in them, resonated with American audiences. At the time, the critic Christian Brinton wrote that Sorolla’s art, ‘is Nature’s reflex in so far as he can make it. If this art is anything, it is an apotheosis of visible, external beauty. It rises to positively lyrical heights in its worship of solar radiance – it is a jubilant symphony of sunlight’ (C. Brinton, ‘Sorolla at the Hispanic Society’, The International Studio 37, no. 145, March 1909, p. xii).
Velas en el mar, Valencia belongs to a series of paintings executed in the summer of 1908 showing beaches with boats and quantities of figures. While there are silhouettes and scenes that Sorolla had studied previously as far back as the 1890s, the artist has now managed to render them with greater virtuosity and resolve them into full, complex compositions that depict an unhindered reflection on the natural surroundings and the joie de vivre that reigned on the Valencia beach. Camille Mauclair stated that in these works, ‘Sorolla simply tells us what he sees, which is free life amid warm air, the sound of the sea, nudes splashing in the water, the magic of the hours’ (C. Mauclair, ‘M. Sorolla y Bastida’ in A. de Beruete y Moret et al., Eight Essays on Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, New York, 1909, vol. 1, p. 144).
It is clear upon examination of this series of paintings executed during his time in Valencia in 1908 that Sorolla was at the height of his artistic powers. He had acquired such speed and dexterity that he was generally successful at any sea view he chose to tackle. Once he had mastered the representation of light, his challenge was to render motion with the same skill. He himself wrote: ‘It would be impossible for me to paint slowly in the open air, even if I wanted to. The sea swirls up at every instance, the cloud is deformed as it changes place, the rope that hangs from the boat swings slowly, that boy leaps, those little shrubs bend their branches and then raise them again… But even if everything were petrified and fixed, it would be enough for the sun to move, as it goes continually, to give things a different appearance… Painting has to be fast, because so much is lost, fleeting, never to be found again’ (B. de Pantorba, La Vida y la Obra de Joaquín Sorolla, Estudio Biográfico y Crítico, Madrid, 1970, p. 60).
In only one other painting executed with the 1908 series of paintings does the sea take precedence over figures as in the subject painting. Sea (Morning Effect), 1908 (fig. 2) echoes the composition of Vela en el mar, Valencia, with its three registers clearly defining foreground, middle distance and background. The artist uses the same diagonal perspective and churning waves to enhance the effect of wind on water that is used so effectively in the present painting.
In addition to being an exquisite example of the artist's best work, Velas en el mar, Valencia also boasts a complete and distinguished provenance. It was exhibited in New York at the wildly successful 1909 Sorolla exhibition at the Hispanic Society, which then traveled on to Buffalo, New York and Boston, Massachusetts (fig. 3). It was purchased directly from the artist when on view in Buffalo, by Mrs. W. D. Olmstead. Mary Olmstead (née Matthews), was the wife of the prominent Buffalo industrialist, William D. Olmstead (1842-1924). The Olmstead’s resided in a mansion built for them by architect Charles F. Ward at 77 Orchard Street in 1888.
The Historical Society of America published a photograph of this painting under the same title, no. 522, photograph 3986.
We are grateful to Blanca Pons-Sorolla for confirming the authenticity of this painting on the basis of a photograph, which will be included in her forthcoming Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida catalogue raisonné with the provisional number BPS 1932.
(fig. 1) Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida painting on the beach in 1908.
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, At the Beach, Valencia, 1908 / Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, Bequest of Irene G. Beene, 1996.31, Photograph by Thomas U. Gessler.
(fig. 2) Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Sea (Morning Effect) © Fundación María Cristina Masaveu Peterson.
(fig. 3) Overview of the Sorolla exhibition (east wall) in the main Court of the Hispanic Society of America, New York, 1909. Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York.