As regular readers of these pages know, just about any time there is a press report regarding the discovery of a previously unknown work by a master painter, I get somewhat more excited about the news than perhaps the average person would. I hope the reader will indulge my interest in a story from the Spanish press about the recent identification of a painting by one of that country’s most important artists, for it is a lovely work in and of itself. The story affords us the chance to explain a bit about what the academic tradition means in art, and why on the whole it produced far better painting than, on the whole, we see today in much of contemporary art.
Although today he is probably less well-known than he ought to be, the Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) was the most popular artist in Spain at the turn of the previous century, and was celebrated across Europe and the United States as well. A painter of great skill in capturing light, movement, and the elegance of the human form, his work hangs in many public and private collections, including at the White House here in Washington. Stylistically and thematically, his work is comparable in some respects to American painters John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), among others, and like them he received many commissions for society portraits and paintings with historical themes. Arguably Sorolla’s greatest facility, and the work of his which is the most highly sought-after by collectors, was found in his portrayal of beach scenes. Using the glowing light of the Mediterranean, he captured elegant ladies in billowing dresses and veiled hats promenading or resting languidly at the seaside, or groups of naked, suntanned children laughing and frolicking about in the surf.
Before he developed his signature style, Sorolla was educated in much the same fashion as all other aspiring painters of his day. The academic tradition insisted that an artist learn how to draw and to paint by looking at art history and tradition, as well as observing nature and what he saw around him. Sorolla dutifully studied and copied the works of the Old Masters, traveled to see the work of other artists, and completed countless drawings and studies, so that he could become a better artist.
The “Study of Christ”, which was identified this week by experts at the University of Lleida in Catalonia as being from the hand of Sorolla, is an example of the type of training Sorolla engaged in to understand how to paint. The existence of an early work by him depicting Jesus was known to the compiler of the artist’s “catalogue raisonné”, which in art history means a comprehensive listing of works known or believed to be by a particular artist. It was also known that Sorolla had inscribed it, along with the date and his signature, “To Mrs. Clotilde García”, but its whereabouts were unknown until now.
Before this investigation took place, the painting had been identified for many years as the work of an unknown 19th century Spanish academic painter. It was put up for auction in 2006, when it entered a private collection in Madrid. The new owner subsequently had the piece examined by experts, and after a thorough cleaning the signature, date, and inscription to his patroness appeared in the lower right-hand corner. This in combination with the use of modern investigative methods such as x-rays, infrared light, and microscopic analysis, allowed the researchers to determine that this was indeed the lost work of the Valencian master.
Because interest in Sorolla has long focused on his large-scale society and seaside pictures, his work as an art student is not as well-known or documented. At the time he painted this “Study of Christ”, Sorolla was only 20 years old and was living in Madrid. Two years later, he would travel to Rome for the first time, on a four-year academic scholarship to study painting at the Spanish Academy there, which was followed by a lengthy stay in Paris. Thus, this work represents the young artist absorbing all he can from his native environment, before going out into the wider world to see what his contemporaries were doing.
While in the end this is not a painting that screams “Sorolla” when you look at it, its real importance lies in documenting Sorolla’s training. He did not simply sit down one day and decide to splatter some paint across a surface and call himself an artist. Rather, he studied his craft and practiced it, taking the time to educate himself so that his work could improve as he did more of it.
Today it seems that we too often indulge those who are little more than untalented publicity hounds when it comes to contemporary art, which is an area of human creativity that has increasingly lent itself to such behavior in ways we would not tolerate elsewhere. For example, imagine you went to a supposed three-star restaurant where the alleged master chef held no training or standards other than what he “felt” like cooking. And then, said master chef throws various, random ingredients together at will, cooks them (or not) for a few seconds, and puts the concoction on a plate before you, expecting not only that you will eat it, but that you will be positively enraptured by it, and honor his supposed genius in breaking conventions. You might get lucky, of course, and find something unusual but tasty, but on the whole it is far more likely that you would simply get food poisoning.
This is not to say that all contemporary painting is bad, of course: merely because something is non-representational or unusual does not make it a bad piece of art. You can still be a great artist and not work in a realistic or traditional style. However the idea that one must have the humility to learn from the masters before one attempts to hold oneself out as a professional artist has been lost. The celebration of mediocrity as achievement is perhaps the inevitable result of a society where all is relative, and there is no good or bad, simply opinion.
Looking at this newly identified work of a then-twenty-year-old painter, we can see that Sorolla took the time to become a craftsman, and worked hard at his craft, in order to become good at what he produced. The rediscovery of this piece represents what we used to believe was the way in which great artists were made. An accomplished athlete, musician, writer, or painter is not someone who is great solely because of any natural talent they may have, but rather someone who takes that talent and achieves something with it, by following the mantra of practice, practice, practice.