At Home With Sorolla and Rusiñol: Two Very Different Artists, Two Very Similar Collectors

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.

Sorolla

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.

Rusinol

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.

Museo

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.

Ferrat

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.

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Thought-Pourri: Everything Old Is New Again Edition

Gentle Reader, I hope that you find these Thursday news roundups as enjoyable to read as I do in putting them together. The one snag that I continue to have is that I find the term “Thought-Pourri” a bit too clever by half. If at some point this feature were to be converted into an email newsletter, which is something I’m thinking about, I’d like to find a snappier title. So the best Christmas gift you could send me this year would be some a suggestion for a better title that both fits with the purpose of this summary of news from the art, architecture, and design worlds, and that has more of a snap to it – just use the “Contact” form located on the site. Thank you in advance!

And so, onward to some news…

New/Old Argument: Aragonese Art

As Catalonia goes to the polls today – again – on regional elections ordered by Madrid, an interesting art story has slipped under the radar amidst all of the coverage over the question of Catalan independence. The medieval Monastery of Santa Maria de Sigena is located in Aragón, the region just west of Catalonia. In the early 1980’s the nuns moved out of their decaying premises, which had been several damaged by leftists during the Spanish Civil War, and found a new home in Barcelona; as part of their move they sold some of the art from their old monastery to the Catalan government. The works – which include several spectacularly decorated Gothic sarcophagi like the one shown below – were put on display for a number of years in a museum in the Catalan city of Lleida, but a few years ago, the Aragonese government sued to try to get them back; in 2015, a trial judge ruled in their favor. The Catalan government appealed, and although the appellate case is still pending, in the wake of the Catalan independence vote and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid, the national police force was sent in and removed the disputed works from the museum.

Sigena

New/Old Building: Noxious Neo-Brutalism

Is Brutalism, a horrible abomination of architecture which has been (rightly) derided from its inception by people with good taste, making a comeback? Award-winning British starchitect Sir David Adjaye of the awful National Museum of African American History and Culture here on the National Mall, (or as I call it, the Sandcrawler from “Star Wars”) has just revealed plans for his first highrise tower in Manhattan, which will be located near the Brookyln Bridge. The 66-story structure will be clad in cast concrete, a material which no doubt will age beautifully in the filthy, polluted atmosphere of New York City, just like all of the other crumbling, horrible Brutalist-era buildings which it evokes. One of the highlights, if you can call it that, will be an interior spa and pool area which described as being inspired by the Baths of Caracalla in Rome which, I suppose if you were color-blind and morbidly depressed you could very loosely claim to be the case, but quite frankly it looks like something out of “Blade Runner”, and not in a good way. (No word on whether Harrison Ford is personally to blame for either of these awful buildings.)

Brooklyn

New/Old Fashion: Romanov Riches

As Russia marks the 100th anniversary of the bloodbath known as the Bolshevik Revolution, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has just opened a new, permanent exhibition of 130 historic costumes, most of which belonged to members of the ruling Romanov dynasty. Located at the Hermitage’s vast storage and conservation complex in the north end of the city, the new displays features suits, gowns, and other clothing from Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II, among many others. Here for example is a ceremonial cloak and waistcoat worn by one of my favorite Russian oligarchs, Emperor Alexander I (1777-1825), who helped to defeat Napoleon.

Alexander

New/Old Resource: Fine Furniture

If you’ve ever been confused by the multitude of design terms used by museum curators, furniture retailers, and antique dealers when shopping or visiting museums and historic homes, you’re not alone. Even those of us who have at least some knowledge of the history of Western furniture can get a bit perplexed when, for example, a catalogue refers to a chair as “transitional” (what’s it transitioning into, a fridge?) While it won’t solve all such problems, a interesting new site (currently in beta) called British and Irish Furniture Makers Online (“BIFMO”) from the Furniture History Society and the University of London hopes to become a major online resource for those who want to learn their Thomas Chippendale from their George Hepplewhite.

cabinet

Visiting Vicens: Gaudí’s First House Opens To The Public

One of the things I’m hoping to see when I head to Barcelona in a few weeks is the Casa Vicens, the first private home designed by the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). It was originally built to serve as a weekend retreat for a Barcelona stockbroker, over 125 years ago. The house served as a private residence until as recently as 2014, but as of this November, it has been opened to the public as a museum.

Regular readers will recall that I previously wrote about the ongoing restoration efforts at the Casa Vicens, a house which features a dazzling variety of materials and construction methods, both inside and out. As you can imagine, there had been a lot of wear and tear on the building, as happens in any home that is actually lived in. Yet while parts of the house were altered over the years, visitors to the new museum will still be able to witness many of the extraordinary architectural and design juxtapositions which the young Gaudí was able to pull off.

From the multimedia gallery on the museum’s website, I wanted to point out a few of the amazing details of the house, which was nothing like Barcelona – or indeed the rest of the world for that matter – had ever seen before. Here we see part of the façade of the house, along with its extraordinary gate and sidewalk railing. The color scheme is a mixture of salmon, turquoise, peach, and green, while an unusual range of materials from brick and stone to tile and concrete give some hint of the extraordinary design elements that await the visitor inside. Note also the ornate yet rather modern-looking wrought iron gate, which is composed of a series of panels in the form of palm fronds.

Facade

Once inside, many of the public rooms of the house have spectacular ceilings featuring bright color schemes, which forgo tradition and subtlety in order to achieve maximum impact. For example, this detail shows that Gaudí was quite capable of creating a ceiling design reminiscent of Perpendicular Gothic, which most architects would have left white. Here however, the stucco and tile elements are executed in a cobalt blue and a chartreuse yellow-green.

Ceiling

Here we see one of the public rooms of the house, with another extraordinary ceiling – this time of scallop shells and roses. The walls are covered with faux marble wainscoting below, and two-tone cranberry red plasterwork of vines up above. This room gives onto a tiled loggia, where the openings are simplified forms of architectural shapes that one would expect to see in Islamic buildings.

Interior

Head upstairs to one of the bathrooms, normally one of the more utilitarian areas of a house, and the unusual juxtapositions continue. Here, the architect places modern-looking corbels and compound support beams above a Pompeian red plaster wall with arcade detailing, baby blue and white checkerboard tile wainscoting, a slim chair rail border composed of tiles decorated with quinces and leaves, and bright yellow flowers festooned across the ceiling panels. Considered individually, none of these things should go together, and yet the overall effect is that of an ancient Roman bath somewhere in Provence

Bathroom

Finally, up on the roof of the house, we can admire a detail which hardly anyone would have ever seen up close, even when the house was filled with guests. The maids would have come up here to perform tasks requiring sunshine and breezes, such as drying the household laundry or beating the dust out of rugs. They would have seen not only the colorful elements of the building’s façade, but also this almost Mid-Century Modern railing of flowers contained within simplified, circular vines. The delicate design belies the sturdy, wrought iron craftsmanship that went into their execution.

Railing

Now, if you find all of this too much to take, don’t worry about it. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by this house, but I understand that it may not be to everyone’s taste. And truth be told, I wouldn’t want to live in it, myself. (Where would I hang all the paintings?)

That being said however, you certainly can’t call the Casa Vicens a boring piece of architecture or design. The young Gaudí, with his first major commission to complete, and his patron, a man who clearly didn’t fear trying something bold and original in his own home, managed to create a truly unique house, and to do so with a great deal of self-confidence and aplomb. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to finally have a wander around the place.