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Artists of leisure and seduction: Sargent and Sorolla were good friends as well as contemporaries. Simon Fenwick visits an exhibition that compares their art.

John Singer Sargent has enjoyed a considerable revival in his reputation and popularity, especially since the major Tate exhibition of 1998. In Spain, however, he is less well known, and it is Joaquin Sorolla y Bastido who is his equivalent in estimation as the artist of the leisured, fin-de-siecle golden age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The artists probably first met in Madrid in 1900, a year in which both also won medals at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. They admired one another's work and went on to correspond warmly. It is appropriate that their work should once more be shown together.


The exhibition that opens this month at the Petit Palais, after having been shown in Madrid, is organised to emphasise affinities and parallels--a space is dedicated to Sargent, the next to Sorolla. We are to compare-and-contrast the artists: leisure and work; individual and group portraits; public projects; and, last of all, Sargent's water-colours in one room, followed by Sorolla's garden studies. From the start one is aware of the social disparities between the two. Born in Florence, Sargent was raised amidst cosmopolitan, worldly Europeans and Americans. His earliest pictures show both an awareness of current ideas in modern art and his social self-confidence in the milieu in which the art was flourishing. Unlike Sorolla, he had no interest in the dignity of labour--he preferred to paint gypsies dancing into a frenzy in the firelight.

Sorolla's upbringing in Valencia was much more modest. After training in Valencia and Paris he too painted the environment he had known from his childhood: genre pictures of the sick and oppressed and of life at the sea's edge. His pictures brim with self-confidence and ambition. He was never inhibited by picture size but revelled in the challenge. Sewing the Sail (1896; Ca' Pesaro, Venice) is an enormous 220 x 302 cm canvas, a bravura performance of rippling shades of white. The men and women hold up the cloth so that it seems to fall towards the viewer. The sail is broadest where, foreshortened, it reaches the edge of the picture, threatening to spill out of the frame and tumble across the gallery floor.

As well as these social subjects, Sorolla went on to paint his best known and most distinctive works, his seaside pictures of women and children playing and paddling at the seaside (Fig. 2). The awkwardly cropped, foreshortened images accentuate the heat and glare of the Mediterranean sun. This shared interest, even obsession, with effects of light and colour links Sorolla and Sargent (a friend of Monet) with the Impressionists but they are distinct from the movement. Neither artist dissolves colour into strands or points of light in an Impressionist manner, and their construction of form and space is traditional. Quintessentially they are heirs of Frans Hals and Velasquez (Sargent's version of Velasquez's portrait of the dwarf Juan de Calabazas is included in the exhibition). Both employ soft, melting brushstrokes, beguiling viewers into the belief that they are looking at fine detail. In fact what they see is shimmering illusion.


About a quarter of the works on show are portraits. It is the portraiture of display, of confident people at ease with themselves and their surroundings. Sargent's sitters are like characters in a novel by his friend Henry James. You want to know these people. How much you would have enjoyed the company of Sargent's own sweet sister Violet (was she really that demure?) How has the day been for the delectable Lady Agnew of Lochnaw? Tonight she sits half-smiling at you from her embroidered armchair, dressed in white, a silk lilac sash tied about her narrow waist, inviting you into her company. On the other hand, whether Sir George Sitwell, Lady Ida Sitwell and their children, or the 22- year-old 14th Earl of Dalhousie would have even given you the time of day is quite another matter. And yet you notice that in order to pose Lord Dalhousie has taken off his hat, revealing a distinct line between tanned and pale skin on his forehead. It is the one touch of vulnerability in what is otherwise a display of aristocratic disdain.

There is both less psychological penetration and less swagger in Sorolla's portraits. His subjects are taken more or less literally at face value: his painting of the banker Echegaray, on loan from the boardroom of the Bank of Spain, is so very much the image of a benign banker the patron must have wanted. For her 1918 portrait Raquel Meller, an early Spanish film star, has plucked her eyebrows, rouged her cheeks and put lipstick on her cupid bow tips, and her generous white dress and broad straw hat have come from the costume department. Sorolla's group portraits are more varied. In La familia de Rafael Errazuriz the five daughters and one son of the Chilean magnate sit together with their parents, arranged across a sofa like eager fledglings on a telegraph line ready to take flight. The most searching and serious of Sorolla's pictures is his own self-portrait (Fig. 1), a subdued study in black, grey, brown and ochre, a dash of white for his collar; a blank canvas at his side, half a dozen more behind him. He stares out at us inquisitively. (There are no self-portraits by Sargent--that would have been to reveal too much about himself.)

The curators contend that the lineal progession of art history inevitably doomed the public works of artists such as Sargent and Sorolla to obscurity soon after the great acclaim with which they were first met. But these works remain less easy to appreciate. Perhaps the need for such murals had truly passed and has still not been recovered. At least Sorolla painted for the Hispanic Society of America what he knew--broad-brushed, colourful peasant scenes. But however much Sargent laboured for Boston Public Library, he was not temperamentally suited to be a great religious iconongrapher.

His most intimate works are his watercolour drawings. From about 1900 Sargent was painting less and less in oils. His reputation and fortune made, he was free to do whatever he wished. Watercolour offered an artistic liberation for him, opening up possibilities of subject matter and style during his extensive travels as he recorded en plein air what he saw directly before him. These pictures became a sort of visual and emotional diary Formal picture composition interested him less than effects of light--on a green door in Corfu, a marble quarry in Carrara, the bed of a glacier torrent in the Val d'Aosta. Most tellingly, the deeply reserved Sargent allowed these pictures to betray a feeling for his own sex: his tommies bathing, asleep in the heat of the sun, are arranged so that their heads touch one another (Fig. 3). For all the world they look like sated lovers.


Sorolla too had enjoyed considerable worldly success, but whereas Sargent travelled widely, he stayed in Spain. His late pictures are of gardens. The Islamic architecture of Andalusia, with its reflecting pools, retreating archways, slender columns, and earthenware pots full of flowers, captured his imagination. Finally he withdrew into the garden at La Casa Sorolla--his own creation--which he continued to paint richly until a stroke disabled him. These works from the end of his life are wonderful meditations on light and colour.

Simon Fenwick is the archivist at the Royal Waterecolour Society.

'Sargent/Sorolla', Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Madrid, 3 October 2006-7 January; Petit Palais, Paris, 14 February-13 March (+33 [0]1 53 43 40 36). Catalogue by Tomas Llorens et al., ISBN 8 47506765 4 (Turner Palermo).
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Title Annotation:EXHIBITIONS; Joaquin Sorolla y Bastido , John Singer Sargent
Author:Fenwick, Simon
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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