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.

Advertisements

Thought-Pourri: Possessive Edition

For those of you in the DC area, don’t forget that tonight from 6:00-8:00 pm the Catholic Information Center, located at 1501 K Street NW, will be hosting its annual Christmas Poetry Party, in conjunction with the Thomas More Society of America. I will be one of the presenters, and if that doesn’t entirely put you off, drop by and say hello! There will be refreshments and plenty of good cheer on offer, and the event is absolutely free.

Meanwhile, this morning I’m currently participating as an absentee bidder in a live auction taking place elsewhere, for a painting that I’m very interested in adding to my collection, so fingers x’ed…

And with that, it’s time for some headlines:

The King’s Pictures

After Charles I was overthrown and executed in 1649 during the English Civil War, much of the substantial art collection which he and his ancestors had accumulated was sold off and scattered to the winds. When his son Charles II ascended the throne at the Restoration in 1660, the Stuarts had a great deal of work to do to restore the prestige of the monarchy. Through a variety of means, the new king managed to start over, acquiring a number of works of art which are featured in an exhibition this month at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Among the items featured in “Charles II: Art & Power” is one of Lorenzo Lotto’s (1480-1557) best paintings, his portrait of the Venetian art dealer Andrea Odoni sitting in his shop, surrounded by statues and casts of classical sculpture. I particularly like how the dramatically foreshortened right arm and hand are shown holding out a small classical sculpture, as if Odoni is offering it to us for sale, and the mixture of charcoal and dove grays, mossy green, and caramel browns create a surprisingly rich color palette.

Lotto

Vienna’s Virtu

The shortlived Wiener Werkstätte (“Vienna Workshop”), from the beginning of the previous century, had a major impact on Modern art, architecture, and design, thanks in part to its espousal of innovative design methods, which it disseminated globally through the creation of satellite workshops in Germany, Switzerland, and New York. Now a major new exhibition in the latter city, at the Neue Galerie for German and Austrian art, is bringing together a wide range of objects created by the Austrian artistic collective, from furniture and ceramics to jewels and decorative objects. Among the beautiful items displayed in the “Wiener Werkstätte 1903-1932: The Luxury of Beauty” show is this astonishing jewelry box, which in the art trade is known as an “objet de vertu” or “vertu” for short. These were items that often had no practical purpose, or were so luxurious as to be somewhat impractical, but which nevertheless featured an incredibly detailed and painstaking level of craftsmanship.

Wiener

Hoving’s Hordes

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when art museums were fairly hushed, quiet spaces, where there were rarely large crowds of people. That all changed forever, at least at the world’s larger museums, with the blockbuster 1978 exhibition, “Treasures of Tutankhamun” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a fascinating piece from this month’s Vulture/New York Magazine, Boris Kachka explains how one man, former Met director Thomas Hoving, took a gamble on making an art exhibition a must-see event for Americans – like the Super Bowl or the final episode of “Cheers” – and succeeded so far beyond expectations that eventually everyone else in the museum world followed suit. A healthy debate could be had over whether Hoving’s hordes of exhibition visitors have improved or ruined the experience of visiting an exhibition, or indeed a cultural institution focused primarily on visitor numbers.

Tut

Degas’ Development

Those of my readers who happen to be in the Denver area between February and May of next year will want to check out the newly-announced exhibition, “Degas: A Passion for Perfection”, which will be held at the Denver Art Museum. Covering over fifty years of the work of French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), the show will feature over 100 examples of Degas’ varied output and artistic development, including paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculptures, alongside the work of some of his contemporaries and friends. Of particular interest is this rather early picture by Degas, painted in around 1865 and now in the collection of the Orsay in Paris, which shows a group of men on horseback shooting at and trampling over a group of nude women, while a city burns in the background. It’s such a strange picture, and so not what springs to mind when one things of the work of Degas, that I don’t quite know what to make of it – but it’s definitely piqued my interest.

Degas

Who’s That Chap? UK Art Detective Is On The Case

I recently became aware of an online art forum which could prove to be highly addictive.

The charitable group known as ArtUK began in 2003 as the “Public Catalogue Foundation”, a charitable group dedicated to cataloguing all of the oil paintings held in British public collections, the vast majority of which are not on view due to limited resources. In 2016, the Foundation was rebranded to the more user-friendly moniker of “ArtUK”, and currently holds information on over 200k pictures. Future plans for the charity include cataloguing all of the thousands of works of sculpture held in public trust throughout Britain.

Among the stated goals of the group is increasing the amount of available information about publically-owned works of art, “through crowdsourcing expertise.” One of the ways in which the public can get involved in this effort is through participating in the online forum called “Art Detective” hosted on ArtUK’s website. Works such as this early 20th-century portrait of a previously-unknown figure are posted in a discussion thread, and participants can use their own knowledge and expertise to comment and attempt to help public institutions gain greater knowledge about the works in their care through a collaborative effort.

(c) Royal Free Hospital; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

At this point, for example, we now know that this formerly unidentified painting is a portrait of Dr. Charles Brehmer Heald (1882–1974), a physician at the Royal Free Hospital in London. From clues such as the hairstyle, clothing, and apparent age of the subject, consensus seems to be that the picture dates to sometime before World War I. Dr. Heald would have been in his mid- to late-30’s, and he’s dressed as a stylish chap of his era would be: high tab collar, large mustache, and the sort of slicked back, long on top/short on the sides hairstyle that the Edwardians often favored. The next big question, now that the sitter has been identified, is to figure out who painted this portrait, and when and where they did so.

Currently there are over 300 such discussions posted on Art Detective, but I suspect as more potential users become aware of this resource, they’ll want to get involved. People love a good mystery, and they also love sharing their personal expertise, in order to help others who may have gotten bogged down in something they’re working on. Much as people researching their ancestry, trying to build a cosplay suit, or growing heirloom tomatoes can sometimes get stuck trying to locate information or ideas, art identification is an area where many public museums, galleries, and historic houses can benefit from contributions not just from art experts, but from people with interests in a wide variety of fields, such as armor and weapons, period costume, social history and customs, local genealogy, and so on.

Take this painting of a fellow who lived several centuries before Dr. Heard, for example. This may be a portrait of Christopher Herbert (1532/1533 (?)–25 June 1590), one-time Lord Mayor of the city of York. He was an exact contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, and a member of a large and important Yorkshire family. The ArtUK discussion on this painting reveals that there is some dispute over which member of the Herbert family he might be, and the posts contain some interesting history about that clan’s genealogy and activities during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Herbert

One of the particularly interesting discussions in the forum on the subject of authorship concerns whether this is a work by Antonio Moro – or more properly, Anthonis Mor (c.1517-1577), a Dutch artist who spent a great deal of time in the service of the Spanish Habsburgs. While Mor spent a great deal of time in Spain, he also got back home to The Netherlands many times, and visited England on at least a few occasions. In 1553 for example, he was sent to London to paint a very famous portrait of the Emperor Charles V’s first cousin, Mary I, the only surviving child of Henry VIII and the Emperor’s aunt, Katherine of Aragon, at the time of Mary’s coronation as Queen of England. You be the judge as to whether the Herbert portrait is by Mor, but at first glance, there is much to suggest that it might be.

There’s much more of this sort of thing on the ArtUK website, and it’s encouraging to see how UK institutions are making use of this resource to better inform themselves, historians, and the public about the art currently held in public trust. It’s also interesting that there isn’t – so far as I’m aware – anything else like this online at the moment in the US, or indeed for ordinary people. On the public side of things, it would be great to see the development of a national database of all of the paintings held in public collections around the country.

In addition, I suspect that there’s a big, untapped market for this kind of identification on the private side of things as well, otherwise shows like Antiques Roadshow would not be running for years and years. There are a few paintings in my personal collection that are not hugely valuable – or not valuable enough to pay an art historian to go research, anyway – where I have little information on either the artist or the subject, and about which I’d like to learn more through crowdsourcing. Perhaps one of my readers with technical savvy and an entrepreneurial bent could come up with something like this for amateur art collectors? I bet there are quite a few advertisers – Ebay, 1stDibs, Chairish – who would love to target visitors to such a forum.