After being shuttered for several months, like all art venues in France, by the global health emergency, the Hôtel de Caumont, one of the Baroque Jewels of Aix-en-Provence, and one of my favorite art exhibition spaces anywhere, reopened recently. Its long delayed new exhibit: Joaquin Sorolla – Spanish Master of Light, proved well worth the wait.

Joaquín Sorolla, Autoportrait, 1900. Oil on canvas,      91,5 x 72,5 cm. Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Although inexplicably little known outside of Europe these days, Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) is considered one of the greatest Spanish painters of the 20th  century. And along with Velàsquez and Goya, it is one of the most popular painters in Spain. 

Born into a modest family in Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast, Sorolla began his artistic training at a young age but didn’t discover the classic masters of Spanish painting until he traveled to Madrid at the age of 18 and ardently began studying the great works at the Prado Museum. Then, in 1885, he obtained a four-year grant that enabled him to complete his studies in Rome, making him the only Spanish artist of his generation to move in international art circles and associate with artists as varied as Bonnat, Degas, Monet, Rodin and Sargent. Soon, the spontaneous, impressionistic brushstrokes of his images of Spain and his incandescent capture of the Mediterranean light were recognized in major European artistic competitions, such as the Salon of Paris, the Venice Biennial, and the Secession exhibits in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. 

The current exhibit introduces visitors to Sorolla’s creative process and the main themes his work.

Grandson of Velàsquez

Joaquín Sorolla, My Family. 1901. Oil on canvas,          185 x 159 cm, Museo de la Ciudad. Ayuntamiento de Valencia.

Although formal portraiture was not Sorolla’s preferred genre, as it restricted his creative impulses, he was an avid portraitist of his family – and he couldn’t overlook the profitable aspect of portrait commissions. The exhibit begins with some of his most notable portraits, the part of his works where the influence of Velásquez  is most remarkable, as in My Family (1901). Here, he has grouped his wife and children in the foreground, with the painter reflected at work in a distant mirror, in clear tribute to The Bridesmaids (Velàsquez, 1665). 

Again, for the Portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, an eminent neurologist and winner of the 1906 Nobel Prize for Medicine, he used the traditional palette of subdued colors from the Spanish Baroque School, and the posture again shows the influence of Velàsquez.

Joaquín Sorolla, Portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1906. Oil on canvas, 107 x 144.5, Museo de Zaragoza.

Yet, as in all the other portraits shown here, Sorolla’s most remarkable achievement as a portraitist was that while he strongly leaned on Classical elements, he subtilely modernized them with references to the likes of Manet, Degas, Whistler, and Sargent. This is as noticeable in the large hats worn by his daughters María and Elena, and the gray dress of his wife, Clotilde, as in the background detail of books in the Ramón y Cajal portrait.

Daily Life of the Seashore

Joaquín Sorolla, The End of the Day, 1900. Oil on canvas                86 x 128 cm. Private collection.

Like his Impressionist contemporaries, Sorolla favored painting outdoors, which allowed him to capture instantaneous impressions and luminosity. With his native Mediterranean coastline offering a rich ground for inspiration, he created brilliant and varied representations of people engaged at seaside activities. 

His painting of fisherman on the beaches of Valencia, achieved the most success in international exhibitions, such as with his very modern The End of the Day, Jávea, presented at the Salon de Paris in 1901. Here, fisherman pulling the boat are viewed diagonally from behind giving an impression of depth to the composition. In the background, the rocky Cape San Antonio is tinged with the orange hues of sunset and the reflections of the water are composed of infinite colors.

Joaquín Sorolla, Beach in Valencia, Morning Sun, 1901. Oil on canvas 81 x 128 cm. Private collection.

In Beach in Valencia, Morning Sun, which he presented at the Salon the following year, he displays an other aspect of his mastery: capturing immediate, fleeting impressions, such as the wind catching the bonnet of the woman and the swelling the sail of the returning boat.“Nothing around us is immobile,” he wrote. “One must paint quickly because so much is lost in an instant and one never finds it again.” 

Joaquín Sorolla, Sail, 1894. Oil on canvas, 16.6 x 25.4 cm, Museo Sorolla, Madrid.

He was especially fascinated by the speed with which a sail swelled with the wind.  He strove to paint it just as one might see it at first glance. In order to convey it, he made endless drawings of sails swollen by the wind, or furled, or partly folded back, exploring all the plastic possibilities of the motif. His sketches subsequently enabled him to represent sails with the same spontaneity as these small studies.

Children in the Waves

Joaquín Sorolla, Swimmers, Jávea, 1905. Oil on canvas,               90 x 126 cm. Museo Sorolla, Madrid.

Figures in the sea were a key theme in Sorolla’s paintings, emblematic of his style. Playful children bathing or running on a beach were some of his favorite subjects. Swimmers, Jávea, is an especially fine example of how these scenes enabled him to fully display his skills as a painter. The challenge here was to capture the way in which the light interacted with the reflection of the sand and the glow of the wet skin, dissolving the children’s bodies under the crystalline water in motion.

Joaquín Sorolla, Bathing on the Beach, 1908, oil on canvas, 77 x 105 cm. Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid.

Bathing on the Beach, is another of these remarkable works, a bold painting that shows an overhead view of a baby playing with the foam on the shoreline. Here, Sorolla fully demonstrates his talent for working with light in combining the bright appearance of the baby’s skin, the girl’s white dress, the warmth of the light, and the coolness of the sea foam. 


The exhibition, which can be seen until November 1st, 2020, showcase around eighty paintings, drawings, and studies, including a substantial number of rarely, if ever seen before, on loan from private collections. It offers a unique opportunity to discover a vibrant, optimistic vision of modern Spain, by a  brilliant artist little known outside of his native country,

Joaquín Sorolla, María with Hat, 1910. Oil on canvas, 40 x 80 cm. Private collection.

Good to Know

  • Getting There By train: there are frequent TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours) to Aix-en-Provence. The TGV station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the bus terminal in the center of town. By plane: MarseilleProvence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle bus as the TVG station.
  • Visiting – Caumont Art Center, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, 13100, Aix-en-Provence, France.Is open daily from May 1 to September 30 from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, with late opening hours on Friday until 9:30 pm, and from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm the remainder of the year. Contact: e-mail. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 20 70 01.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!