Las Tres Hermanas was painted at the height of Joaquín Sorolla’s artistic maturity and international fame.
Sorolla was a leading figure among a cosmopolitan group of artist friends who redefined portraiture in the late 19th century. Including figures such as the American John Singer Sargent, the Italian Giovanni Boldini, the French Paul-César Helleu and the Swedish Anders Zorn, these artists brought to life the leading society figures of the day in a highly keyed, vigorous and painterly style which reflected the confidence and energy of the Belle-Epoque. Although very modern, this new style was applied to a pictorial template which could be traced back to English aristocratic portraiture of the 17th and 18th centuries by artists such as Anthony Van Dyck and Thomas Gainsbororough, and which included an acute sense of high fashion, the elongation of sitters' features to make them appear more slender, and strongly raking perspectives. Reworked by Sorolla and his contemporaries, this formula flattered its subjects by reflecting back at them a sense of aspiration and status, and by combining a sense of both established power and the excitement of the new. A criticism of this genre of painting is that it sometimes sacrifices emotional complexity for a formality and slickness which, when applied to children, makes every young sitter look like an overconfident princeling. Although Sorolla did paint numerous portraits of the Spanish Royal family and leading American industrialists, his unique skill was his ability to modulate his technique and apply it brilliantly to child portraiture and to marine landscapes, rendering all the exuberance, wonder and, above all, innocence of childhood in the former, and an extraordinary sense of light and movement in the latter.
To the audience of the day, who flocked to Sorolla’s exhibitions in America, it was the latter qualities which were particularly striking. To the modern viewer, accustomed to the bright palette and broad brushwork of Impressionist art and its ability to render naturalistically effects of colour and atmosphere, it is the immediacy and psychological intensity of Sorolla’s beach paintings, which makes them so arresting and captivating. These qualities are a result in part of Sorolla’s extraordinarily modern and photographic sense of composition and, and also of his own natural understanding of childhood, which was rooted in his profound devotion to his own family and children whom, uniquely among his peers, he was to paint often. Liberated from the formulaic constraints of formal portraiture and the emotional distance from his subjects, Sorolla found in children a source of unbridled creative expression, most famously when represented on the beach of his native Valencia.
These paintings were revolutionary in their combination of a highly photographic sense of composition and realism, with a profoundly painterly technique, marked in particular by the deft handling of pinks, whites, blues and blacks. The former gave Sorolla's paintings an extraordinary matter-of-factness and ability to bring the viewer close to the subject, while the latter brilliantly rendered the movement of swirling waters and billowing fabrics, and the reflections and contrasts which played between air and water.
Although this painting fits very specifically into a series of beach paintings focussed exclusively on children, it fits more widely into an artistic vision in which the relationship of man to his environment is paramount. Before Sorolla removed himself to Valencia with international aspirations in mind, in the 1890s he had already created a large body of realist paintings with strongly social themes, in which paintings focussing on the relationship between the peasantry and the land, and between fishermen and the sea, featured particularly prominently (fig. 1). These paintings were not wholly dissimilar to those of the Academic Salon artists alongside whom Sorolla exhibited in Paris, such as Jules Bastien-Lepage.
Thus, although the Valencian shorefront had featured many times in Sorolla’s oeuvre before he embarked on the corpus of work of which the present painting is a part, the focus shifted from grand social narratives with a strongly patriotic element, to paintings in which the stress was above all on acutely observed effects of nature, and on the subtleties of people interacting with each other, whether at work or at play. Sorolla was a master at interpreting the subtlest nuances of human gesture and expression, whether the boisterous play of children chasing each other across the sand or a mother tenderly drying a child exiting from the water, playing across a wide range of emotional keys. The artist had already hinted at this extraordinary ability in his famous painting of 1899, Sad Inheritance, a pathos-filled representation of a priest shepherding a group of young, naked and profoundly disabled children down to the shoreline, which is quite different to the more exuberant displays of youth and energy which typically describe the artist’s depiction of children on the beach, and which was acquired by an American collector in 1902. As the writer Thomas Ybarra related, following one of his many interviews with the artist in New York:
“In everything he does and says, Señor Sorolla gives evidence of that joyous inner self which find constant expression in his sparkling, sun-bathed canvases, in the rollicking beach-children of Valencia and Malvarrosa and Jávea, whom he delights to picture in all their litheness and innocence. A Sad Inheritance!, loaned by the Church of the Ascension in New York, was the only gloomy painting in the exhibition. Like many of the pictures, it shows the beach at Valencia, but the figures, instead of happy bathers in sunshine and water, are a score or moer of imbecile and crippled children in the charge of a dark-robed priest. In speaking of this picture Señor Sorolla said:
‘I suffered horribly when I painted it. I had to force myself all the time. I shall never paint such a subject again’”. (T. R. Ybarra, “The American Success of a Great Spanish Painter”, The World’s Work 18, no. 1, May 1909, pp. 11566)
Translating an equally powerful sense of emotional engagement, but one which is light-hearted and joyous, the present painting depicts three young sisters, holding hands on the water's edge; it sensitively captures a mixture of trepidation, exuberance and sisterly affection, which combine to create a painting of powerful human feeling, which is intimate, but without any of the sentimentality that such a subject would lend itself to in less skilled hands. The composition is photographically cropped, with no horizon line, and one girl skipping into the picture plane from the left, balancing the more static pose of her sisters who contemplate the eddies and waves at their feet. The scene is tenderly and naturalistically observed, throwing into sharp focus the symbiotic relationship between man and nature, and evoking the contrast between the fragility and innocence of childhood and the latent power of nature. The wet sand has a profound sheen, evoked in blacks and purples, which contrasts with the lighter tones of the girls' clothing and the agitated waters which fill most of the canvas. The scene is viewed from above, again as if viewed through a camera lens, reinforcing the sense of raking perspective and depth lent by the diagonal of the water line and the cresting waves which balance the composition in the background. Sorolla has evoked the water rushing down and forwards towards the viewer, from which one almost instinctively draws back, instilling almost the same sense of imbalance conveyed by the three young children. Sorolla translates a naturalism which reflects a deep understanding of the elements and of children, and the reaction of each to the other, resulting in a painting of extraordinary luminosity, which is intimate, majestic, yet immediately accessible and engaging.
Sorolla in America,
Recently the subject of a major exhibition held at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, the San Diego Museum of Art and the Mapfre Foundation in Madrid, in which the present painting was included, Sorolla’s relationship with America was fundamental to his international career and commercial success. Although best understood in terms of patronage, it also served to reinforce the artist’s self-belief and to consolidate his position as an artist who was simultaneously accepted by the official establishment, as vouched for by the many Salon and Exposition prizes he won in Europe and America in the 1890s and early 1900s, and by leading collectors and artists of the “modern” school. America allowed Sorolla to develop a European tradition into fertile and receptive territory that could embrace both the old and the new. As he once observed: “Your American artists, such as Chase, Sargent, Cecilia Beaux and Gari Melchers – all of whom I am proud to number among my personal friends of long standing – what are they but children of Velazquez, like myself?”
Although Sorolla’s success in America was due primarily to the patronage of Archer Milton Huntington, who not only bought canvases directly from the artist, but also provided the platform for his first blockbuster show in his country in1909, at the Hispanic Society of America, the circumstances of their first meeting at the Grafton Galleries in London also provide an insight into the reasons for Sorolla’s future success in the USA. Like Huntington, wealthy Americans travelled increasingly to the commercial art hubs of Europe – such as Paris, Berlin, Venice and London – to buy art, and artists and dealers responded by promoting their art actively in America. For example, in 1886, at the invitation of the Art Dealers Association of America, Paul Durand-Ruel organized the first ever Impressionist show in the USA, and in 1889 he opened a permanent gallery on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Further, American cities hosted a large number of International Exhibitions (known as “Expostions”) in the late 19th century – including Chicago and New York in 1893; San Francisco in 1898; Philadelphia in 1899; Buffalo and Pittsburgh in 1901 – many of which included national pavilions which promoted their respective countries’ leading artists. Indeed, Sorolla’s work had first been exhibited in the USA at the 1893 Chicago exhibition, The World’s Columbian Exposition, where, as Blanca Pons Sorolla notes, “he had also sat on the jury in charge of selecting the works that were to represent Spain. Among the five paintings he sent were ¡Otra Margarita! a work with a social theme that had been unanimously awarded a first-place medal at the Exposición de Bellas Artes in Madrid the previous year.” (Blanca Pons Sorolla, exh. cat. Sorolla and America, 2014, pp. 13-14.) Other paintings by Sorolla, exhibited in various museums on loan from private collectors, also received a generally favourable critical reception. Most notable among these was Sad Inheritance, today one of the artist’s most famous works, which combined the social themes of the artist’s early career with the Valencian sea-front location of the present work to create a work full of pathos, but with all the brilliant effects of light and atmosphere for which the artist is best known today. In 1904, The Pennsylvania Museum of and School of Industrial (today the Philadelphia Museum of Art), acquired his painting The Young Amphibians, a beach scene in the spirit of the present work, which was acquired on the museum’s behalf at the Paris Salon by the American painter Alexander Harrison.
Although eclipsed in the genre today by his Italian and American contemporaries, Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent, portraiture also helped to secure Sorolla’s reputation in America. His credentials were already firmly established by commissions he had secured from the Spanish royal family, including portraits of King Alfonso XIII in 1907, and other leading families from his home country. The late 19th and early 20th centuries was an era when a vast number of newly wealthy financiers and industrialists sought to create a new-world aristocracy, concretised through the creation of vast mansions, philanthropic endowments, and the amassing of huge art collections, of which contemporary portraits by leading artists were considered an essential part. Once Sorolla’ fame had been established by the 1909 exhibition at the HSA, American clients sought out the artist not only during his sojourns in America, but also in Paris and Spain; among his sitters he included Hungtindon, the tobacco, insurance and transportation magnate Thomas Fortune Ryan, the financier JP Morgan, and the industrialist and philanthropist Benjamin Newton Duke.
The first owners of the present work were typical of the kind of American establishment figures whose patronage Sorolla enjoyed. Its first owner, Mrs Benjamin Brown Graham (1852-1915), née Christine Biddle Blair, was the daughter of Francis Preston Blair, Jr. (1821-1875), a Union general in the US civil war, member of Congress, unsuccessful candidate for US vice-president, and senator for Missouri. She married Benjamin Brown Graham, a paper manufacturer and banker. One of the wealthiest women in St. Louis, Mrs. Graham was active in philanthropy and was interested in women’s suffrage. Her daughter, Christine Alexander Graham, married the diplomat Samuel Miller Breckinridge Long and inherited her mother’s estate in 1915. Her husband served as American ambassador in Rome from 1936 to 1939, and as Assistant Secretary of State from January 1940, retiring in November 1944.
The present lot is recorded in Blanca Pons Sorolla's Archive under the number BPS 1939.