Sorolla's work has frequently been compared with that of Sargent, Zorn, Boldini and Liebermann and no contemporary collection was complete without an example of at least one of these masters. The pre-eminent artist in Spain at the turn of the century, Sorolla was admired and imitated by many of his contemporaries. Indeed, he is known to have shared extensive correspondence with Zorn, whose work he had first seen at the 1889 World Exhibition. He shared a similar exchange with Sargent which is evident in Sorolla's emulation of the artist in his early portraits and Sargent's imitation of Sorolla in his own landscapes after 1906.
In the summer of 1907 Sorolla and his family moved to La Granja de San Ildefonso (Segovia). Sorolla had received a commission to paint the portraits of the Spanish Royal Family there and the move afforded a better climate for his daughter Maria who was still recovering from the tuberculosis that she had contracted the previous year. In 1906 he had enjoyed a very favorable response to his one-man show at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. This encouraged his friend, Dr. Haider and the German dealer, Eduard Schulte to organize a show of his work in Berlin, Düsseldorf and Cologne for which he sent 280 pictures. However Sorolla elected to stay in La Granja with his family rather than to attend the show because of his concern for his daughter's health.
Sorolla painted a total of twenty-seven pictures in the gardens of the royal residence during this summer. This group included many figure paintings as well as a series of portraits of the Spanish monarchy such as Portrait of King Alfonso XIII wearing a Hussar's Uniform (Palacio Real, Madrid), Portrait of Maria at La Granja (San Diego Museum of Art;fig.1), Portrait of Queen Victoria Eugenia wearing a Mantilla (Palacio Real, Madrid), and Portrait of Clotilde at La Granja (Museo National de Bellas Artes, Havana). The concept of painting exterior portraits shows a marked shift from Sorolla's earlier style of portraiture which had been greatly influenced by Sargent. Sorolla had begun to paint plein-air portraits in 1904, with his wife as the model set against a beach, as a backdrop, and by 1906 he had begun to pose other members of his family. Initially, these paintings introduced the figures as devices to enliven the landscapes of Biarritz, El Pardo, La Granja and subsequently the beaches of San Sebastián. In Sorolla's later works, the figures in his paintings become a more significant focus of the composition, and often take on the characteristics of his most important portraits. This development is evident in our picture which is painted in a similar manner as those of the Spanish monarchs from this same summer.
Maria was the eldest of Sorolla's three children. Together with her siblings, Joaquín and Elena, she learned to draw in her father's studio. She was, however, the only one to pursue a career as a painter(fig.2). According to Francisco Pons Sorolla, his grandson, "When Maria was aged 16, her father, recognizing her talent, was anxious that she should devote herself to painting. Despite her delicate health, she fulfilled her father's desire. When she later married his former pupil, Francisco Pons Arnau, she continued to paint and produce exquisite work of great sensitivity and refinement." (The Painter Joaquín Sorolla, San Diego Museum of Art, 1989, exh.cat. p.32) Maria and her father would paint together in the gardens of El Pardo and he often used her as a subject of his own work during this period.
Maria mirando los peces shows Maria, in front of the "Fountain of the Horses" in the gardens of the Royal Palace at La Granja de San Ildefonso. The fountains were built in 1727 for Isabella Farnese as a gift for her husband Philip V and the water for them was supplied by an artificial lake 4100 feet above sea level. The subject allowed him to display the fleeting effects of light and to animate the canvas with the flowing style and bright hues for which his work was so widely praised. The critic Aureliano de Beruete described Sorolla's manner of working on these paintings, "The execution of each work was preceded by a period of preparation in which...he was at pains to familiarize himself with the subject--its contrast of light and color, the proportions, form and foreshortening of each figure, and finally the effects and interrelation of the different tones. Once he had assimilated all this, he would arrange his models in place, at the hour and in the light required...and would set about painting it, without hesitation or change" (op.cit. p.79) Sorolla described his technique in the February 15, 1918 issue of El Imparcial: "I use short strokes of a full brush, according to the subject and to the moment. In general I prefer short strokes because they don't blur the shades as much." (op.cit. p. 80) In Maria mirando los peces the artist contrasts the light that illuminates the fountain and produces brilliant reflections in its moving water with the elegant figure of Maria who stands in the somber shade of the foreground. Therefore, what appears to be a spontaneous plein air picture is revealed to be a more carefully arranged composition.
At the time our picture was painted, Sorolla was on the verge of achieving international fame. His 1906 one-man show at Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, had met with critical acclaim and the subsequent shows in Berlin (1907) and London (1908) served to further his audience. It was at the 1908 exhibit at the Grafton Galleries, London, that Sorolla met the American collector Archer M. Huntington. Huntington arranged to bring Sorolla's work to America for an exhibit at the Hispanic Society of America which he had recently founded in New York(fig.3). The American tour opened February 4, 1909 and was an unquestionable triumph for the Spanish painter--a record 159,831 people attended the show in New York alone (op.cit. p.24)--and the tour continued to Buffalo and Boston. Following the success of his debut in America, Sorolla had two other exhibitions in Chicago and St. Louis in 1911, the same year he also sent a number of works to the International Exhibition in Rome. The last years of his life were focused on a large commission from Huntington for the Hispanic Society of America entitled Vision of Spain.