Sorolla: Gardens of Light, Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara, Italy

“After lunch, I go out immediately to visit the palace, compelled by the desire to paint the gardens again,” wrote Joaquín Sorolla to his wife Clotilde. “You would like them, for the ground is never trampled, everything is paved with ceramic tiles; the fountains are tiled and everything is surrounded by myrtle, creating a very pleasant poetic sensation.”

It was 1908, and the Valencia-born painter had been summoned to Seville to paint the queen in the gardens of the Alcázar, the royal palace. At 45, his career was reaching its zenith thanks to a reputation forged as a master of genre paintings of social subjects. (His painting “Sad Inheritance” of polio-crippled children bathing in the sea won him the Grand Prix at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900.)

Sorolla’s poetic, semi-impressionist style stamped him in the mould of that other Belle Epoque master, John Singer Sargent. And as with the American, the first decade of the 20th century saw Sorolla in demand as a portrait painter to the beau monde. By the time he died in 1923, no one doubted his place in the modern Spanish pantheon. Yet, possibly because many of his paintings are held in a museum dedicated to his memory in Madrid, he has slipped under the international radar.

In recent years, a cycle of exhibitions – including a 2010 retrospective at the Prado in Madrid – has raised his profile considerably. Here in Ferrara, the curators have concentrated on the private passion to which Sorolla alludes in his epistle: gardens.

The result is a panoply of paintings that were painted not to win prizes or to please clients but to satisfy Sorolla’s own anima. They sprang from his passion for nature, sunlight and, most of all, en plein air painting. He once said that as far as outdoor work was concerned, “a studio was only a garage; a place to store pictures and repair them, never [to] paint them.”

This sensibility was entwined with his love for his own family (Sorolla even slipped flowers into his love letters home). Aside from a handful of paintings that fall outside the theme and a street scene, the only models here are his wife and small daughter.

The self-portrait – inscribed “To My Clotilde” – that opens the show captures the artistic tension that fuelled Sorolla’s vision. The candid contours of his face framed by his shoulder and a broad-brimmed hat are the fruit of a youth spent copying Velázquez at the Prado. Yet the sloppy strokes and bold white facial highlights are the legacy of an early sojourn in Paris, where he discovered the luminous informality of French modernism. Meanwhile the composition – the painter is caught off-centre glaring over one shoulder with just a slice of his palette visible – owes its Degas-like crop to one of Sorolla’s most important influences, the Valencian photographer Antonio García, who was also his father-in-law.

While the figure studies that made his name anchored his yearning for light in academic rigour, the garden paintings were occasions to indulge in Impressionist dazzle. A cycle of his wife and daughter in the grounds of La Granja, the royal summer residence in Segovia, in 1907 – “Looking at Fish” and “Skipping the Rope”, “Maria in the Gardens of the Royal Palace of La Granja” – take the breath away with the brilliance of their evanescent, clotted colour: the glassy blues and greens of a fish pond; the shimmering violet creases in a diaphanous white dress; golden sunlight splashing across honeyed bricks into black-green water; and, most spectacularly, the violent purple shadow cast by his daughter as she is captured leaping over her rope as if in a snapshot.

Yet Sorolla, unlike Monet, never dissolves his blossoms into abstraction. When painting the gardens at La Granja, he uses trees, statues, walls, the curve of a pond and a child’s hoop, as well as his models’ silhouettes, to create tightly plotted puzzles of shape and form that counterpoint his wild chromatic epiphanies.

Sorolla had a profound love affair with Andalusia, a region where he travelled extensively, particularly after his 1911 commission to make paintings of local people to decorate the library of the Hispanic Society of America in New York. Yet the landscapes here suggest that he struggled to capture nature’s more subtle tonalities. Although he described the Sierra Nevada range as “beautiful beyond words”, his lush, nebulous mark-making dilutes the delicate copper, olive and russet hues of an autumnal forest into a muddy blur, while the peaks beyond sag under stolid layers of heathery blue and creamy pink.

The curators link Sorolla’s visual chronicles of Spanish life and landscape to regenerationism, a movement that “advocated a renewal of the country by going back to the roots of Spanish identity and culture” following the crisis caused by the humiliating defeat inflicted by America in 1898 and the loss of its remaining colonies.

Essentially, Spain’s painters, poets and intellectuals were attempting to forge a new modernist identity through the retrieval of times past. In such a Proustian dream, gardens held a complex significance. Just as for the French Impressionists, they were refuges from industrialisation and simultaneously symbols of the new leisure time that modernisation had produced. In Spain, though, the Moorish origins of the grounds of the Alcázar, the Alhambra and the Generalife in Granada also made them relics of the national heritage to be preserved at all costs.

Certainly, Sorolla’s paintings of these latter gardens mix nostalgia with a surprisingly stark essentialism. A painter who hated art that reduced objects “to pretty things . . . suitable for the decoration of tambourines and fans”, he succeeded in perceiving the skeletal geometry – the clean lines and blank voids – that underpinned the singular Arabic harmonies of crisp loggias, shaded patios and abundant pools and fountains. (“It is a festival of water!” he enthused to Clotilde about the Alcázar.)

In “The Fountain of the Moorish King, Alcázar of Seville” (1908) he concentrates on a fountain backed – in a tantalising example of off-centre framing – by a plain, apricot-bright wall end-stopped by an arch and just half of its neighbour. Then he delicately extends the horizon through a narrow rectangular portal that opens on to a distant garden summoned in blurry leaf-greens and aubergine-purple. “The Basin of the Alcázar of Seville” (1910) captures a single corner of the oblong pool, its plum and indigo depths broken by the mirror image of terracotta-pink urns and primrose-yellow blooms that fringe the edge. “Reflections in a Fountain” (1908) – probably painted from a stereoscopic photograph – is simply that: an upside-down chronicle of columns and arches fracturing into scintillating ripples across the liquid surface.

This latter part of the show leaves you in no doubt that Sorolla needed the potency of saturated colour and the discipline of strong, sharp-edged structures. When he softens his palette and relaxes the forms, as in his later paintings of his own garden – which as plans and photographs show was modelled on the Moorish predecessors – his vision loses conviction. Yet at his best, he conjured outdoor spaces with the same uncanny intensity that Matisse brought to interiors. His aim, Sorolla always said, was “to interpret nature as it really is”. How interesting that his most glorious paintings of gardens were those constructed with painstaking precision.

Until June 17

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