Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light, National Gallery, 2019



Seeing Sorolla for the first time in my life at the National Gallery in London brought me to an exclamation of amazement in tears: this is what painting stands for and this is the best kind of painting that can possibly be. The Spanish light and shadow under Sorolla’s interpretation did not fall into the rubric of Impressionism or its implied formal tropes and clichés. Instead they are handled with love and care to portray his beloved ones and his endearing land. To put it in Chuangtzu’s words:


Fishing-stakes are employed to catch fish; but when the fish are got, the men forget the stakes. Snares are employed to catch hares, but when the hares are got, men forget the snares. Words are employed to convey ideas; but when the ideas are apprehended, men forget the words.

Chuangtzu, What Comes Without, Book 26


Sorolla’s virtuosity lies precisely in the forgotten stakes, by which other Impressionists were deceived. When a painter’s love and compassion were conveyed via his paintings, the idea of Impressionism shall be forgotten. And that is why so many mothers including myself repeatedly return to the same painting of his wife and his new-born baby sleeping soundly, enveloped by the ocean-like white covers teeming with light and warmth. The awareness of the self has also dissolved in this state of being in the present and in the presence of the painter’s loving eyes. The gerund, painting, stands for the urge to depict the most universal human emotions. Where the eyes reach is what the heart yearns for. Painting, one of the most ancient mediums, still exists and persists for this very reason.


Upon close observation, I noticed that Sorolla executes paint differently in rendering the interplay between light and shadow as light is represented by a determinate slab of bright impasto on top of thinly painted shadows. This inversion of a painterly execution dynamizes the depiction of light as there is an element of aggression when that thick brightness usurps the viewer’s vision. In this painting of the gleaming sea under an umbrella, the white paint sits on top of the waves and comes towards the viewer, shimmering with rhythmic movements. Here comes a trinity of unity: the light itself and its symbol in a painterly syntax, as well as the white paint, hence the reality of the object being depicted, its symbolic meaning expressed in painting, and the materiality of painting. The world, the painting, and the painter have come into onement.