Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light

By Ana Novais

Doctor Aoife Brady is a curator of Italian and Spanish Art at the National Gallery in Dublin and holds a Ph.D in History of Art from Trinity College Dublin. Dr Brady is also the co-curator of Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light, an exhibition on Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla.

“This project came to me rather than me going to it,” said Dr Brady. “I have been working with Spanish art for a long time and Sorolla was on my radar for several years and his house was always on the list as a place to see. It is an incredible museum and Sorolla’s family home. I always knew about the artist and years later, I started to work for the National Gallery in London and that’s where I began this project.

Dr Aoife Brady, Curator of Spanish and Italian Art, National Gallery of Ireland
Photo: Jack Caffrey The Pimlico Project 2019

“A year later and I got a job in Dublin and took the exhibition with me,” said Dr Brady. “The partnership between London and Dublin was already planned, so I ended up working for both institutions which made my work easier.”

Since beginning her career, Dr Brady says that her passion for art has found her in some very surreal situations. None more surreal then when she met Prince Charles and the Queen of Spain went at the opening of the London leg of the exhibition. And now the exhibition has finally come to the National Gallery.

So who exactly was Sorolla and what can art enthusiasts expect from the exhibition?

 “Sorolla was a Spanish painter during the late nineties. He was born in 1863 in Valencia,” said Dr Brady. “During his time, he was widely known in Spanish painting tradition, but he was unknown in Ireland and the U.K, which was an incentive to bring Sorolla’s work to Ireland in conjunction with the National Gallery in London and the Sorolla Museum in Madrid.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923)

“He was a member of the international movement of vanguard painters. They used oil to experiment with their painting. Their paintings were very free and very fluid and were usually painted outdoors.

Dr Aoife Brady, Curator of Spanish and Italian Art, National Gallery of Ireland
Photo: Jack Caffrey The Pimlico Project 2019

“Sorolla often painted social things, things that he saw on the streets such as difficult subjects and I suppose that’s what made him so unique,” said Dr Brady.

“During the exhibition, visitors can transport themselves to Spain, particularly with the range of works painted by the sea. He is out there in the elements painting from the light, painting from what he sees and the sea itself is often the subject. He eliminates the sky and land from certain compositions, and he focuses himself on the water.

One artistic choice which distinguishes Sorolla’s work from many others is his striking use of colour and bright shades, which make his paintings appear illuminated.

“Sorolla said that one of his lead scholars needed sunglasses to look at some of his paintings,” explained Dr Brady. “Most of the paintings are so bright that when we were installing the exhibition, we were putting the paintings on the wall and some of them needed minimal light, they all have their sort of luminosity.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923)

“His oldest work dates from the eighteen eighties when he was beginning his career, he moved from his house in Valencia to Madrid which had a better market for painters at the time.

“When we look at the paintings first, we establish an easy-going and sunny scene,” said Dr Brady. “He made a painting of his eldest daughter Maria in El Pardo sitting down with a big bright umbrella over her. We look at it and we think that this was just a happy family snapshot but this was made during a period of convalescence of his daughter. She was very sick from tuberculosis and they brought her up to the mountains in the hope that the cool air would help her to recover.

“Aside from this particular painting, there are other portraits of Maria looking very ill,” said Dr Brady. “In some paintings, she appears to have a very grey face, but this one is when her recovery hits a turning point and her cheeks get rosy again. Hence, he painted her with bright purple and yellow colours. We can see his happiness, but it is sort of a secret meaning in a way, because we can’t see immediately that this was a painting of a sick woman.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923)

Sad inheritance is the most unique,” said Dr Brady. “It was a touchy piece, and Sorolla considers it a sacred image. He describes it as a portrait that awakens painful memories that he never wishes to go back to. The painting covers a sad scene of poor orphan boys. This painting was difficult to get because of its size and it took seven people to place the painting on the wall.

“I think his work is incredibly important, when we consider that people have made art and looked at art for millenniums. It is not a modern concept idea of art being important, it’s a lot more than that.”

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