This costumbrist scene representing fishermen at work returning with the day’s catch and a young boy playing may well be a depiction of the beach at Cabañal. Sorolla frequented the beach, which around 1900 would typically bring together fishermen and their families as well as painters looking for themes representing regional identity. This combination of pre-industrial labor carried out by the working class on the one hand and outdoor painters with hints of nationalism on the other provided an optimistic image of the Levante region of Spain, as opposed to the hard transformation process that industrialization brought to the region’s landscape. Mechanization and gigantic urban scale made up the new physiognomy modeling lives and customs in Levante. Nevertheless, the attitude of nostalgic escapism from civilization upheld by painters like Sorolla led them toward rustic natural settings and made these coasts a bucolic refuge from the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Beneath this costumbrist approach to a marine environment, the true raison d’être of Sorolla’s search was the light of the Mediterranean. His sensitivity to this light pertains to one of the two tendencies that marked Spanish painting at the turn of the century: a “white Spain” as opposed to the “black Spain” of Zuloaga, Solanas and Romero de Torres, among others. The lead role in this painting is the light, captured rapidly and painted in plein air at midday, resulting in a work defined by spontaneity and a sketchy, vibrant atmosphere, produced by reflections of blinding sun at its highpoint above the sea.
Sorolla occupies a special place in the luminist movement, based in Valencia and Sitges. His inclusion of diverse influences differentiated him from the rest of the luminists; he knowingly incorporated doses of impressionism and Scandinavian painters’ work such as Peder Severin Krøyer (1851-1909), Viggo Johansen (1851-1935) and Anders Zorn (1860-1920) or German painter Adolph von Menzel (1815-1905), with whom he became familiar in Paris. In the debate between tradition and modernity, his work was not only capable of resolving the dilemma between academic knowledge and impressionist experimentation, achieving balance between both positions, but he also managed to maintain a juste milieu in art (at a moment of contesting avant-garde factions and reactionary attitudes towards them) that contributed toward an international level of commercial success that was unprecedented among other luminist painters. All this leads to artistic historiography considering him to be the artist who brought the Levante luminist movement to a close.
Capturing forms in an instantaneous and luminous manner, closely related to Parisian impressionism but far from its underlying concerns is a constant that characterizes the painters from Spain’s Levante region who were active during the late 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th, making up the base of the Sorolla style. In spite of their conservative artistic formation, they dared to venture into unusual techniques and a large degree of modernity in relation to academic norms that imposed an inclination toward bituminous tones, provoking a substantial change painting processes. By focusing on the dominant presence of the sea, the view that disappears in the infinite distance, the coastal atmosphere and the hypnotic suggestion of light and its subtleties, they proposed involving viewers in a perception of reality prior to Gestalt structuring; in other words, a kind of perception where sensations precede forms. Levante’s luminism figures within a tendency toward a lighter palette that takes place in 19th Century European painting, confirming the existence of explorations into light and color that emerged as landscape painting developed and naturalist effects were captured.
Sorolla created a “maniera” or style that could be emulated on a compositional level and that was thematically “digestible” in spite of its modernity. His luminous technique was diametrically opposed to the structured palette of cold academicism that had enthroned history painting along with its contrived compositions. However, Sorolla’s deliberate organization of masses of light and color brought him closer to academic thinking and preferences for thoroughly composed canvases that maintained forms and color strictly in balance. His adhesion in part to impressionist technique should not be confused with an adoption of discoveries regarding luminous impressions achieved by way of juxtaposing pure colors, relegating structure to a secondary plane, or with a dissolution of form—all divergences from impressionism that united him with the rest of the luminists—although his approach tends to oscillate toward brushstrokes with impressionist comatic aberrations. These technical characteristics can be observed in this work and also in La vuelta de la pesca (Return from Fishing, 1898, inv. 2007, MNBA) both of which have very complex infrastructures. The velocity and a particular impression inherent in Sorolla’s poetics would never be completely emulated by his followers.
In reference to the themes handled, the artist opted for descriptions of a golden age in the Mediterranean, an Arcadia where he presents us with men in simple, sweet harmony with nature. The fishermen’s gestures and the little boy playing in the water represent the flow of all things and are ephemeral. Even so, these moments evoke the eternity of this region’s types of humanity.María Cristina Serventi - Alberto Martín Isidoro
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