During my recent sojourn in Spain, I visited two rather impressive house/art museums which, to my surprise, had a more profound impact on me than I had anticipated when I set out to visit them. Originally, I only put them on my schedule in order to kill some time, before having to head to luncheons with different family members. Yet as it turned out, I was drawn deeply into each, coming to a greater level of appreciation for the work, times, and tastes of both of the artists who once lived in these homes.
Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) and Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1931) are two of the greatest painters to have been working in Spain at the turn of the previous century. While many of their paintings are now in museums and private collections around the world, quite a few key works by each artist still hang in their respective homes, both of which are now museums which preserve and celebrate their art. The Museo Sorolla in Madrid is contained in the elegant Neoclassical mansion which Sorolla called home for the last decade or so of his life, and in which his family continued to reside for a number of years after his death, until they donated it and its contents to the Spanish state. The Museu del Cau Ferrat, which is located in the beach resort of Sitges, about half an hour south of Barcelona, was a seaside weekend home and studio for Rusiñol for almost 40 years, where he could get away from the city and invite small groups of artistic and literary friends to come visit; he donated it and his collections to the town to be preserved as a museum after his death.
Although they were contemporaries, Sorolla and Rusiñol differed rather substantially when it came to their outlook on their own art. Sorolla came from poverty, and he studied and worked extremely hard to climb to the top of the artistic profession in Spain. He often engaged in friendly competition with other society artists of the Gilded Age, including John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn, (arguably) the greatest American and Swedish painters of the era. Like these artists he was more interested in painting ordinary people than in the well-known and well-to-do, but thanks to his great taste and skill he painted not only Spanish and European royalty and notables, but also famous Americans such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and President William Howard Taft, among others. His catalogue of commissions demonstrates how well-regarded he was internationally, at very high levels.
When not portraying the great and the good, Sorolla’s work focused on his family, traditional scenes from country life, and most especially on images of the seaside. His luminous beach paintings are perhaps his most famous works, and for good reason. In them we see naked children playing in the waves, ladies and gentlemen lounging about dressed in linen and straw hats, and hearty fishermen working on their nets, all enveloped in that intense Mediterranean sunlight which is extremely difficult to capture in photography, but which Sorolla manages to capture in order to give an almost internal radiance to his paintings. A famous example in the collection of the Museo Sorolla is “A Walk On The Beach” (1909), showing the painter’s wife and eldest daughter out for a stroll along the surf, with their white veils billowing in the breeze.
Rusiñol, on the other hand, was one of the original hipsters. Although he came from a well-to-do, bourgeois background, he chose to ally himself with the bohemian and avant-garde art movements of his time. Along with his closest friend, the great Catalan painter Ramon Casas, he painted subjects which would have been wholly inappropriate to polite society: prostitutes, street people, and so on. He became just as familiar with the bohemian hangouts of Paris as he was with the private clubs of the Barcelona bourgeoisie, where his art never quite felt at home, and encouraged the work of other, up-and-coming artists who became his friends, such as Picasso and Utrillo.
One example of Rusiñol’s very different approach to art from that of Sorolla is “The Morphine Addict” (1894), shown below. It is a disturbing image of Stéphanie Nantas, one of his preferred French models, which he painted in Paris during one of his sojourns there; it now hangs in the great hall of Cau Ferrat. In it we see the drug-addicted model in bed, having just given herself an injection that is starting to take effect. Her right hand clutches at the sheets, and her head pushes back into the pillow, as the narcotic begins to do its work. This is a world away from the elegant, languid Sorolla painting shown above.
Yet for all of their differences, and there are many, there is one thing that both Sorolla and Rusiñol had in common: they were obsessive collectors of art, antiques, and decorative objects. After visiting their homes, it becomes quite clear that each of them abhorred a vacuum as much as nature does, and to a greater extent than, today, with our love of minimalism, we would consider to be normal in a family residence. One would expect to see, for example, paintings by each of them, works of art gifted to them by their friends, some family photographs, and the like. But that is just the beginning of what a visit to each of these museums entails.
It’s no exaggeration to state that both Sorolla and Rusiñol wanted ALL THE THINGS: Gothic altarpieces; glazed ceramics; swords and armor; carved thrones; Baroque tapestries; inlaid marble tables; wrought iron candle stands; etc. And not everything was from Spain, either. Roman sculpture, Persian carpets, French ivories, Japanese lacquer screens, English walking sticks, Chinese temple vases – you name it, they had it. It would be impossible for me to try to describe how much *stuff* each of them had crammed into every corner of their houses, because no matter how much time you could spend in either of these museums, you couldn’t possibly see it all.
To get a flavor of what these places look like, you can visit my Instagram account and take a look at the pictures which I snapped at both museums. As this article is already running a bit long, I’ll only draw your attention to two aspects for your consideration. At the Sorolla home in Madrid, one of the most interesting details was the fact that the artist used old, decorated ceramic apothecary jars for storing and separating his brushes. I’ve seen these used before in homes and restaurants, as vases for flowers or for storing kitchen utensils, but I found this was a particularly novel – if indeed, slightly expensive – way of an artist keeping his tools organized.
Meanwhile, at Cau Ferrat, one of the most striking things about Rusiñol’s design for the ground floor of his house is the use of an intense, almost electric blue for nearly all of the walls in the public spaces. It is such a rich, saturated color, that the decision to use it as the background for his vast display of things such as glazed pottery or drawings by Casas, Picasso, and others, seems absolutely crazy – until you become accustomed to the space and realize that, somehow, the whole thing works. It’s also rather interesting that the (untalented and grossly overrated) French postmodern artist Yves Klein was widely credited with the use of this particular color, yet long before he was even born, Rusiñol was employing it to such a superb effect in what is, essentially, an art installation as much as it is home decorating.
The opportunity to see where an artist lived and worked is a rare thing, but to be able to see the objects that they loved still on their shelves or the like, and to be able to get a sense of how the artists used these things in their daily lives, makes the visit to an institution such as the Museo Sorolla or Cau Ferrat all the more of an intense learning experience. In this case, despite many years of being familiar with the work of both of these painters, and assuming that they had nothing whatsoever in common with each other besides being from the same generation, I came to realize that both of them loved and appreciated beautiful things: women, furniture, holy water fonts, door knockers, bronze lamps, etc. I may have to do some more thinking about my preconceived notions regarding each of them.