Born in Valencia in 1874, Isabel Brú was one of the most popular singers and performers in Spain during her lifetime. She was most famous as a performer of género chico style zarzuela, a uniquely Spanish type of musical theater. A short-form style similar to French Opéra comique which involved both singing and spoken performance, género chico style zarzuela is characterized by its use of localized slang, current political satire and comedic popular subject matter. Though zarzuela was invented in 1657, at the end of the 19th century it was experiencing a renaissance in the aftermath of the Spanish Revolution of 1868, and Isabel Brú was one of the genre’s most celebrated practitioners. The daughter of an opera singer who began performing publicly at only 13 years old, she made her debut at the Apollo Theater in Madrid, the most important zarzuela venue in the country, when she was 20 years old, and when Sorolla painted her ten years later, she was at the height of her fame. Brú would retire from the stage only three years after the present portrait was painted, leaving her adoring public clamoring for more; however an undisclosed illness prevented her from performing further and would lead to her untimely death in 1931 at only 56 years old.
Like his contemporary John Singer Sargent, Sorolla was one of the leading portraitists of his time. The success of both men lay in their ability to capture not only the physical likeness of their sitters, but also their inner character. While Sorolla was still on the cusp of becoming a household name internationally in 1904 when he painted the present work, his standing in Spain is evidenced by Brú’s commission of this portrait from her fellow Valencian. While zarzuela could be quite camp in both its costuming and its performance, Sorolla has eschewed this kind of depiction in his portrait of Brú, capturing her instead as the flamboyant and confident diva she surely must have been. Boldly executed with loose energetic brushwork, Brú’s full-length aquamarine silk and white lace dress, sparkling assortment of cocktail rings, and large diamond earring all add to the impression of a performer at the height of her fame. By strongly lighting the picture from the left-hand side of the composition and adding a long olive-gold drape in the background at right, Sorolla has created the impression that his sitter is on stage, being applauded by her many fans. Her hand rests on a chair covered by an opulent white fur throw, adding yet another textural element which indicates her wealth and status, and allows the painter to demonstrate his skill at capturing different fabrics. The warmth of her facial expression, her beautifully captured features and the halo of light Sorolla uses to surround his sitter’s face all portray Brú as a woman at the height of her professional success, beloved by the world at large.
We are grateful to Blanca Pons-Sorolla for confirming the authenticity of this work, which is registered as no. BPS 1997 in the third volume of her forthcoming Joaquín Sorolla catalogue raisonné.