How to survive the hot and humid days of August? The obvious answer, of course, would be to escape to the beach. And if you don't mind the two-hour drive down to San Diego, you can experience there splendid sunshine, sandy shores and shimmering waves. Just one thing though -- all of the above is yours to enjoy if you visit the air-conditioned galleries of The San Diego Museum of Art. I'm talking about the major exhibition of Spanish Post-Impressionist painter Joaquín Sorolla (1863 - 1923), one of the most popular and successful artists at the turn of the 20th century -- both in Europe and here in the U.S. And that's why this comprehensive exhibition, containing more than 150 of his works is titled Sorolla and America.
His first U.S. exhibition took place in 1909 at The Hispanic Society in New York City, and it became a huge success with over 150,000 visitors in just one month. The only other exhibition that was even more popular during that time in New York was the Metropolitan Museum exhibition of the Golden Age of Dutch Painting, which included works by Rembrandt and Vermeer. Quite a competition.
Today, more than a hundred years later, Sorolla's luminous, large-scale beach scenes still seduce not only your eyes the moment you encounter them, but your nose as well. It is as if you are stepping into the scene, and able to smell the salty air and feel the cool breeze. It is obvious that Sorolla was hugely influenced by French art, but his works are distinguished by a particular sensuality, vivacity and theatricality.
In Europe, with his triumph at the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition, Sorolla was in huge demand as a portraitist for the Rich and Famous, including portraits of Spanish royalty. But what this exhibition at The San Diego Museum reveals, is that his art was also wildly popular and appreciated here in the United States. His 1909 portrait of President William Howard Taft is appropriately formal and, at the same time, refreshingly relaxed in both posture and brushstroke.
The large, horizontal portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany sitting in a flower garden brings to mind Claude Monet's landscapes of Giverny garden, as well as the luscious colors of Tiffany's stained glass windows and lamps.
The beginning of Sorolla's popularity in America can be traced back to 1893, when he received a Medal of Honor at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. About 20 years later, Sorolla was commissioned to do the biggest public artworks of his career, a series of 14 monumental murals for the Hispanic Society in Manhattan, which he completed by 1919.
Understandably, the artist had to spend a good amount of time in New York, and there are a series of shimmering, small sketches of NY street scenes he glimpsed from the windows of his suite in the Plaza Hotel. Judging by what Sorolla painted in America -- for himself and for his patrons --
he had a hell of a good time here.
Ironically, while this Spanish artist was enjoying widespread popularity in the U.S., his contemporary, American artist Marsden Hartley (1877 - 1943), travelled to Europe, to Berlin (1913 - 1915), where he spent the three most tumultuous but also most productive years of his life. This experience included a love affair with a German officer who was killed within the first few weeks of World War I. Hartley was crushed, but stayed in Berlin for another year until the U.S. entered the war in 1916. Seeing his gorgeous German paintings in the current exhibition at LACMA, I couldn't stop marveling at how, at the right moments and in the right hands, a tragic experience can inspire and lead to the creation of great works of art. After all, successful gardeners know that, to make beautiful flowers bloom, one must nourish the soil with plenty of manure. Honey simply will not do.
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.