187 – After all…

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, After the Bath, 1908. Hispanic Society of America, New York.

I suspect the title of today’s painting suffers from mistranslation – the original Spanish was probably Después del Baño, which does mean ‘after the bath’, but it could equally well mean ‘after the swim’ – the connection is, of course, bathing in the sea. This is not important though: what matters is the image, what we see – but this is definitely not a bath. The painting is known under its English title as it was bought by the Hispanic Society of America, in New York, directly from the exhibition of Sorolla’s work which the Society itself was hosting. The museum had opened in 1908 (the same year the painting was made), and the exhibition took place the following year. It was the American public’s first exposure to Sorolla’s work, and the first time this painting had been seen. It’s been there ever since, apart from a few exhibitions, with a mainly anglophone audience. The painting is currently one of the culminating images from the Royal Academy’s rich, majestic and encyclopaedic exhibition Spain and the Hispanic World which I will be introducing this Monday 13 February at 6pm. The following week I will look at the luminous, hypnotic paintings of Alison Watt (20 February), and after that, the innovative sculptures of Donatello (27 February). Finally (for now) I will give two talks on Vermeer, which will be introductions to the exhibitions in Delft and Amsterdam, and entitled (rather unimaginatively) An Artist from Delft (on 6 March) and Amsterdam ’23 (13 March). If you’re not free on those two dates, I’m giving the same talks (more or less) for ARTScapades as a single study evening on 7 March (and if you’re not free then either, they do record their talks, unlike me). All of these details are, of course, in the diary… Meanwhile, back to the ‘bath’.

Sorolla has painted a spontaneous moment on the beach. A girl has stepped out of the sea, and the button on the right shoulder of her diaphanous robe has come undone. As she reaches round to secure it, a boy holds a white bathing towel around her, some say to shelter her, and protect her from the view of others, but I would suggest that it is so that she can dry herself. Why do I think this? Well, she is still in plain sight for everyone on the beach, which includes not only Sorolla, but also, as a result, all of us. The artist was born in Valencia, on Spain’s south-eastern coast, in 1863, and grew up there: scenes such as this must have been a common feature of his childhood. He left home and went to Madrid to become an artist at the age of 18, but before that he worked as an assistant to photographer Antonio García Peris, whose daughter he met, fell in love with and would later marry. The informal aspects of his work, and the ‘snapshot’ views he depicts, were ideas he discovered by experimenting with the camera at this young age. The same approach lasted throughout his career, bearing fruit in images such as this, painted on one of his return trips to Valencia as a successful, Madrid-based, artist in 1908.

It is only when you get close to the painting that you can see how young the two subjects really are – a boy and a girl (this was long before the invention of the ‘teenager’). Nevertheless, the boy looks, entranced, at the girl. She smiles as she fastens the button, only too aware of his presence. They are on the verge of moving beyond childhood. In the background mere daubs of paint suggest the presence of a least three children – boys, as the colours suggest they are not wearing robes – playing among the waves. Dots, dashes and smears of white create the breakers on the deep blue/violet/turquoise sea. The range of colours is truly remarkable. The boy wears a broad-brim, straw, fisherman’s hat which casts most of his face into shadow. However, Sorolla was always the master of the precise fall of direct sunlight – a small area of the boy’s left cheek and the corner of his mouth is lit, while the side of the nose seems to be illuminated by light reflecting off the towel. The girl’s arms and hands are similarly lit by direct and reflected light, and the modulation from light to shadow and back to light is perfectly realised, however broad and apparently free the brushstrokes. The shadow to the left of the crown of the hat is purplish, while the darker areas of the towel are blue: in 1885 he had headed off to Paris, and fell under the spell of Impressionism. Evidence of this is the use of complementary contrasts (hence the purple and blue of the shadows, marking the absence of yellow and orange light), and his devotion to plein air painting. There are photographs of him on the beach, palette and brush in hand, standing in front of his easel, looking at a collection of patiently posed children.

There is a fair breeze, and the white towel billows around the girl’s form. I say white, but it only looks white, and brilliantly so, where it reflects the direct sunlight, or transmits it, as it passes through from behind. Elsewhere it appears lilac and pale blue – or even pale pink, where it is lit by reflections from the girl’s robe. Her right leg steps forward, the knee slightly bent, and the thin, wet fabric clings to her form – or, at least, to her leg and stomach. Folds in the drapery ensure that decorum is preserved.

In the bottom right corner is the artist’s signature, almost modest in its retreat to the margins: ‘J. Sorolla y Bastida 1908’. The rest of this detail includes what look to me like wild, almost abstract forms, but they are, of course, an accurate mapping of the light and shade as it bounces off and through the towel and hits the sand. The girl’s right foot is firmly planted while her right heel lifts off the beach as she continues to move away from the water. The thinnest brushstroke of white paint shows how the sole of her foot is still wet, the water refracting light around the form. We only see the boys left foot, together with the shin, which is in shadow. The bottom of the towel hides the right foot, although the shadows of the legs tell us where it is: it’s almost a game that Sorolla is playing, both revealing and concealing. In fact, if you look back, you’ll realise that we can’t see what the boy is wearing, if, indeed, he is wearing anything at all. Other paintings tell us that Sorolla worked in far more innocent (if inequitable) times. Girls always wore robes like this on the beach and in the sea, whereas boys, until they reached the age of puberty, wore nothing. Here’s another painting from the RA’s exhibition that I will include in Monday‘s talk, Sea Idyll, which was also painted in Valencia in the summer of 1908 and bought directly from the exhibition. It could be the same boy and girl, although her hair appears blonder (that could the direct sunlight) and her robe is a different colour (it is probably a different day, and she could have had more than one).

The oblique angle, and the way in which the two figures are not evenly placed in the centre of the image, are both features which create a sense of spontaneity. Indeed, the shadow of the boy’s hat is cut off by the edge of the frame, helping to give that ‘snapshot’ effect. And yet, as you could surmise from the photo above, this would have been posed, and must have taken several hours at least, which wouldn’t allow for much spontaneity. As far as After the Bath is concerned, other images can confirm this.

The sculpture on the right is called the Venus Genetrix – Venus as ‘founder of the family’ – an iconography for the goddess of love related to a new cult founded by Julius Caesar, but based on a Greek sculpture from the 5th Century BCE. Sorolla had seen and admired examples in Paris and Rome (where he spent four years on a scholarship after his visit to France): the photograph illustrates a Roman sculpture ‘after’ – i.e. inspired by, or based on – the Greek original, and is an example from the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Indeed, I’ve read that he commissioned a version of the sculpture for the garden of his House-Studio (and now museum) in Madrid (which was built with the income from the successful New York exhibition), although I haven’t been able to track down a photograph of it. According to a description by Pliny the Elder, the original, by the Athenian sculptor Callimachus, showed Venus holding a golden apple in her left hand, while her right was raised to cover her head with her robe. Elsewhere it has fallen off her left shoulder, revealing her breast, and the wet drapery clings to her body. Decorum is not preserved. Sorolla takes this idea and paints an image after the Venus Genetrix, moving beyond it so that the shoulder – and, as a result, also the breast – are now covered. He also adds a greater twist to the body, although the basic contrapposto, with the left leg straight and the right bent, is basically the same. But does the action of Sorolla’s painting – a woman stepping from the sea to be clad in robes held out by someone else – ring a bell? It probably should, as Sorolla is also painting an image ‘after Botticelli’.

A female figure steps from the sea, protecting her modesty, while another figure reaches across with something to clothe her more fully. The comparison is both direct, and simple, even if there is not a precise replication of any of the forms. The relationship is in concept rather than appearance. But it does tell us that Sorolla’s After the Bath – after a Roman sculpture after Callimachus, and after Botticelli – was not spontaneous after all. That doesn’t make it any less wonderful. Rather, it demonstrates Sorolla’s brilliance, inspired by the ideas of others and adapting them to make them completely his own, showing an awareness of art that is part of the definition of art itself. And, of course, this is not the only painting inspired by other works of art: we will see several other examples from the Hispanic Society on Monday.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

5 thoughts on “187 – After all…

  1. You suggest the girl is fastening the button of her robe. I suggest she is unfastening it in order to take off her robe and dry herself or be dried by the boy.


  2. It’s a possibility. To be honest, I’m only echoing what others have said. I suspect she would have wrapped herself in the towel until she got to an enclosed space to take off the robe and dried herself, though.


  3. Thank you for this great unpacking of this wonderful painting. I had only heard of Sorolla from the Spanish exhibition that have some wonderful, light filled paintings by him. Speaking of Artscape I also hugely enjoyed Jacqueline Cockburn’s series of talks called the Treasures of Spain where she devoted half of one talk to Sorolla. Why was he not ‘discovered’ here in the UK until recently?


    1. Sorolla only had one exhibition in the UK – in 1908. In itself it was not a success: very few if any paintings were sold, and as a result, there were none in British Collections, and so no one here knew about him (the National Gallery as recently bought the most unattractive of his paintings that I’ve seen… sadly!). However, Archer Huntington, the founder of the Hispanic Society, was in London in 1908, just after the museum opened. He saw the exhibition, met Sorolla, and invited him to exhibit in New York the following year. The exhibition was an enormous success, and made Sorolla both wealthy and famous in the States: the Americans caught on to Impressionism (in all its forms) far more quickly than the British.


  4. I first encountered Sorolla in Madrid back in the 80s and bought some prints back home with me. I like “The Return from Fishing” and “Sad Inheritance”, the last being so emotive, I can’t remember now which pictures were at National Gallery exhibition in 2019 but his light lingers on in my memory.

    Liked by 1 person

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