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Two Outstanding Beach Scenes by Sorolla are the Highlights of Sotheby's 19th Century European Paintings Sale
Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), Niños en la playa. Estimate: £1,000,000-1,500,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Sotheby’s announced that the Spanish section of the 19th Century European Paintings sale on 23 November will be headed by two outstanding oil paintings by Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923). Depicting children by the sea, both works were painted over the same summer of 1904 on Cabañal beach, Valencia, a favourite location of the painter. Both works featured in Sorolla’s first major international exhibition of his work at Galerie Georges Petit in Paris in 1906, and have remained in two private collections for more than a century.

El Pescador is dominated by the striking profile of a boy carrying a basket of fish as he walks along the shore. Behind him, in the distance, a group of younger children frolic in the sea. In Niños en la Playa two young boys sprawl at the water’s edge as they concentrate their attention on a toy sailing boat. Both scenes are bathed in the warmth of the Valencian sun. The bright Mediterranean light glints on the boys’ skin and dances off the whites of the waves. In El Pescador it reflects off the scales of the fish in the boy’s basket; in Niños en la Playa it illuminates the sails of the toy boat.

The subjects are wonderful evocations of the innocence of youth; their spontaneity of expression and richly worked brush strokes reveal Sorolla’s consummate ability to capture what he sees in paint as a result of his familiarity with contemporary photography and his knowledge of Impressionism. Sorolla’s extraordinary facility to capture the brilliance of the Mediterranean sun was famously acknowledged by the Impressionist painter Claude Monet who called Sorolla “the master of light”, and Sorolla is still popularly referred to as “the Spanish Impressionist”.

But El Pescador and Niños en la Playa not only demonstrate Sorolla’s inimitable brush work and huge talent for evoking an impression but also reveal his extraordinary technical dexterity and supreme confidence in recording the action taking place before him and creating bold and compelling compositions.

The close cropping of the foreground boy as he moves across the picture surface in El Pescador gives a drama to the composition that is almost cinematic. Likewise in Niños en la Playa, with the focus firmly on the two boys playing - to the virtual exclusion of all other activity - the effect is of a snapshot; a moment frozen in time. Sorolla’s use of such compositional devices is not coincidental: growing up in Valencia he had helped out in the studio of local photographer Antonio Garcia Peris. In return Garcia had sponsored Sorolla’s training as a painter. Sorolla’s marriage to Garcia’s daughter Clotilde in 1888 further ensured his close ties to the photographer and his milieu.

Beyond showing his technical prowess with a brush and his familiarity with contemporary compositional techniques, however, in both works Sorolla contemplates the inevitable passing of time and the precious gift of childhood. The wistful backward glance of the boy in El Pescador suggests the future of the boys splashing in the water: that in a few years one of the boys in the sea behind him may well be the one bringing in the catch. In contrast, the toy yacht in Niños en la Playa signals not only the two young boys’ more elevated status, but also signposts their more affluent future. This last nicety was surely not lost on the painting’s first owner - the Conde de Heeren who purchased Niños en la Playa at the time of Sorolla’s Paris 1906 exhibition. The painting has remained in the same family to this day.

Sorolla’s growing interest in children as subject matter ran parallel to the raising of his own three children with Clotilde. By the time El Pescador and Niños en la Playa were painted his oldest child was fourteen, his youngest nine. Orphaned himself at the age of two, and raised by his aunt and uncle, Sorolla treasured his marriage and attached great importance to family values. The success of Sorolla’s subsequent incorporation of children into his compositions can also be measured by the growth in his reputation and material wealth. Fishermen, fishing boats and oxen appeared less and less in his compositions as the pleasures of beach life and children playing by the water’s edge took centre stage during the first decade of the last century.

Aurora Zubillaga, Managing Director of Sotheby’s Spain and Spanish paintings senior expert explains: “Sorolla was a prolific painter who spent his vacations in Valencia reinvigorating his oeuvre and pushing out the boundaries of his creativity throughout the years. In the first decade of the 20th century he created his finest pieces and collectors vie for the luminous scenes that capture the everyday life for those hard at work as well as at play, We are indeed fortunate to offer these two canvases among a handful of other works by this Valencian artist in this sale.”

Adrian Biddell, Director of the 19th Century European Painting Department and responsible for the world record for Sorolla, La hora del baño, also executed in 1904, which sold for £3.7 million in 2003, says, “Over the last decade, Sotheby’s has sold all but one of the works by Sorolla which have commanded over £1 million. And since the autumn of 2008 alone have sold nine works for a total of £7,500,000. Sorolla’s work is appreciated by an ever expanding global group of collectors, and we are looking forward to exhibiting both El Pescador and Niños en la Playa in Moscow and New York as well as Madrid and Barcelona ahead of selling the works in London.”

International acclaim for Sorolla’s work developed during the 1890s when he was awarded a medal at the Paris Salon of 1895; he was further honoured at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 when he received a gold medal. In his native Valencia a street was named after him in recognition of his achievement and he was appointed a “favourite and right worthy son of the city.” This national and international recognition were harbingers of the sensational success he would obtain in the years to come both across Europe and in the USA.

To this day Joaquín Sorolla stands out as the period’s most renowned Spanish artist and was the subject of a major retrospective of his life and work at the Prado Museum in Madrid in 2009. Sorolla’s luminous landscapes, scenes of Spanish life and portraits are highly sought after on both sides of the Atlantic; over the last decade Sotheby’s has successfully sold over fifty paintings by the artist for a combined total of in excess of £30 million.

*Estimates do not include buyer’s premium.

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