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The Three Sails by Joaquin Sorolla Expected to Sell for 3 to 4 Million USD at Sotheby's
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, (1863-1923). Las Tres Velas (The Three Sails) 3,000,000—4,000,000 USD. Photo: courtesy of Sotheby's.

NEW YORK.- Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida painted Las Tres Velas (Three Sails) on the beach of El Cabañal during the summer of 1903. One of the most luminously eloquent of his many images of the fisherwomen of his native Valencia, Las Tres Velas marks Sorolla's artistic passage to a new level of creativity. Sorolla was already one of the world's most honored painters when he launched his 1903 campaign of open-air painting among the fishing communities on Spain's Mediterranean coast, but in the course of that summer Sorolla pushed his art to a new monumentality and laid claim to a broad new palette of color effects. Lost from public view for a century, Las Tres Velas consolidates a decade of Sorolla's painting experience into an unforgettable image of the womenfolk of his beloved homeland.

The asymmetry of Sorolla's eye-catching composition immediately announces the distinctive ambition of Las Tres Velas: three barefoot women of different ages, pulling together as they walk against the wind, are juxtaposed with a sweeping, open line of billowing sails on low-slung fishing skiffs that lumber into shore. Well beyond the picture's edge, the women's progress will intersect with the returning boats, but it is only the empty baskets, swinging awkwardly over the oldest woman's forearms, that connects their purpose to the distant fishing fleet. The very emptiness of the open shore spreading across the lower right corner of the painting emphasizes the unswerving advance of the fisherwomen who know their way without a glance to the boats. Wind snaps their patterned scarves and twists their aprons against their legs; the damp breeze glosses the rude wicker with prismatic color; and the early morning sunlight glances off a feature or a texture with little regard for form or beauty, yet each of the women has her own age, her own identity.

One of Sorolla's most ambitious early successes with the theme of the sea La vuelta de la pesca or Bringing in the Catch (Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional) offers a telling comparison to Las Tres Velas. Virtually every Valencian motif to which Sorolla would later return -- billowing sails, brawny oxen, colorfully dressed women, dancing children, and long, streaking shadows -- is introduced in this expansive seascape of about 1897-98. Sorolla's skill at orchestrating color and in marrying complex figural groups is shown to good advantage in La vuelta de la pesca, but the painting gives little indication of the particular gifts that would soon set Sorolla well apart from the vast troupe of marine painters working throughout Europe.

By 1901, once again in Valencia, Sorolla took up a subject from the right hand side of the earlier painting, creating Las Sardineras (see fig. 2), a group of women gathered around a tub of fish and the fishwife offering them for sale. Moving his figures well up in the foreground, emphasizing their huddled, pressing eagerness with a jumble of similar baskets, and weaving soft lavendar tints and and acidic green-browns into the prevailing blue and orange color scheme that pulls the women, the sea and the beach into harmony, Sorolla firmly staked a claim to a more sophisticated artistry that would bring so much grace and power to his many subsequent scenes of Valencian fishing life. Finally, in 1903 with Las Tres Velas and perhaps a dozen further seascapes, Sorolla began to make the air and wind, the water and light of Valencia, leading actors as prominent in his paintings as his fisherwomen or bathers; Sorolla's achievement as a profoundly modern master of a realism tempered by abstraction was complete.

Sorolla exhibited Las Tres Velas in the Berlin international exhibition of 1904, the last time it would be seen publicly for a century (a black and white photograph in the Sorolla family archives kept the painting's existence on record). Either during the exhibition or shortly thereafter, Las Tres Velas was acquired by Max Steinthal, then one of Berlin's leading bankers. During the mid-1890s, Steinthal and his wife Fanny had built a magnificent home in Charlottenburg, a fashionable, parklike section of Berlin and throughout the first decade of the twentieth-century they built up a collection of both modern and old master paintings displayed throughout the house. Las Tres Velas can be seen hanging above Steinthal's desk in an undated family photo. Steinthal's talents as a financier were as precocious as Sorolla's as a painter: he had been a director of the Deutsche Bank since his early twenties and made an enduring mark on his native city by structuring the complex financing to build Berlin's underground and elevated railways. Steinthal continued to serve the Deutsche Bank as a director well into his eighties, until Nazi proscriptions forced him, as a Jew, to resign in 1939. Soon thereafter, the Steinthals were obliged to sell their home at 119 Uhlanstrasse. Although their sizable family of children and grandchildren escaped the worst of the Nazi persecution, Max and Fanny Steinthal chose to live out the last years of their lives in a hotel in Berlin, dying in 1940 and 1941 respectively, just before they were slated for deportation to a concentration camp. Little of their former life remained to them in those dire years, but Fanny was able to prevent the seizure of their art collection by transferring the works to one of her sons-in-law, a non-Jew, who managed to move the paintings, drawings and prints out of Berlin to Dresden. When that son-in-law, however, chose to flee East Germany following the closure of that sector after the war, he had to leave the crated Steinthal paintings behind. Seized by the GDR as property of a state enemy, the paintings were stored in the basement of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie and forgotten for fifty years. Only with the catastrophic flooding of the Elbe River during the summer of 2002 which threatened much of the artwork and apparatus stored throughout the lower reaches of the Gemäldegalerie complex did the crates come back to light. Through the provenance studies taking place at the museum, the paintings were ultimately returned to the far-flung descendants of Max and Fanny Steinthal.

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