Sorolla’s Naturalist paintings 1: Fishermen and white slaves

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), White Slave Trade (1895), oil on canvas, 166.5 x 194 cm, Museo Sorolla, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Three of my favourite painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, and Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923). Although I had never thought of any of them as being particularly ‘Naturalist’, Véronique Gerard Powell has recently made a strong case for Sorolla’s paintings, particularly those of the 1890s, to have been thoroughly Naturalist. In this article and next week’s sequel, I will consider those works which support her case.

Sorolla had been born and brought up in Valencia, on the eastern and Mediterranean coast of Spain. After training in Madrid and Rome, in the mid-1880s he was in Paris during the peak of Naturalism and the success of Jules Bastien-Lepage, who died in 1884. When Sorolla moved to Madrid in 1890 with his wife and young family, he strove for success at Salons and exhibitions throughout Europe, often with large paintings that were both realist and carried obvious social messages.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), Peeling Potatoes (1891), oil on canvas, 40 x 48 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Although working primarily in Madrid, Sorolla started to use the fishermen of Valencia to supply motifs. Early among those is this man Peeling Potatoes (1891) in one of the fishing boats hauled up just above the sea on the beach there. Relatively small and quite sketchy, this may have been a study which he intended to develop into a larger more finished work.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), Another Marguerite! (1892), oil on canvas, 130.1 x 200 cm, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, MO. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, Sorolla had his first great success with a gold medal at the National Exhibition in Madrid, for Another Marguerite! (1892). This went on to win first prize at a Chicago International exhibition.

A young woman sits, hunched up and dejected, with chains around her wrists and her possessions tied up in a small bundle next to her. Sat behind her in the cattle-class compartment of the railway train are two armed National Guards, near-identical figures who are escorting her in custody to face trial. She appears already to be sitting in the cell which awaits at her destination.

Sorolla’s title explains, with its reference to Gounod’s opera Faust (1859), itself based on Goethe’s Faust. There, Marguerite was seduced by Faust, made pregnant, and then killed her baby. The artist was apparently inspired to paint this in the summer of 1892 in Valencia by a real-life episode in which he had seen a woman being transported in custody to face a tribunal for an identical charge.

He next painted a couple of works usually associated with costumbrism, a Spanish art movement which revelled in everyday observations of tradition, and in painting is marked by its fine and attentive detail.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), Kissing the Relic (1893), oil on canvas, 103.5 x 122.5 cm, Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa / Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, Bilbao, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The second of those shows Kissing the Relic (1893), an occasion at the end of Mass in the church of Saint Paul in Valencia, very close to Sorolla’s childhood home. The congregation, composed largely of poor and elderly women, have been invited to kiss a reliquary containing an alleged relic of a revered saint, drawn from the cupboard behind the priest. In their midst is an altar-boy who is selling images to the pious.

In 1894, Sorolla focussed again on the lives of the fishermen of Valencia, in two major Naturalist paintings.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! (1894), oil on canvas, 151.5 x 204 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! (1894) is set in the hold of one of the larger fishing vessels, amid spare tackle, a large barrel, and some of its catch. Two older men are attending to a youth, who appears to have been wounded, presumably as the result of an accident at sea. Around the boy’s neck is a pendant good-luck charm; he is stripped to the waist and pale, and one of the men is pressing a dressing against his abdomen. Lit from an open hatch at the top left, the painting has the immediacy of a photographic ‘snap’ and looks documentary.

Sorolla’s title is incisive social comment about the values of a society which is happy to see young boys go to sea to fish, putting their lives at risk so that those ashore can enjoy cheap seafood. This was painted during the summer of 1894, again in Valencia, and went on to great acclaim in the Paris Salon the following year, where it was bought for the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

It is sometimes held that this painting was inspired by a novel by Blasco Ibáñez, but Powell suggests that the chronology makes it more likely that Ibáñez was inspired by this wonderful painting.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Return from Fishing (1894), oil on canvas, 265 x 403.5 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. WikiArt.
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), Return from Fishing (1894), oil on canvas, 265 x 403.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. WikiArt.

At the same time that he was painting that work, Sorolla was busy on his even larger Return from Fishing (1894), which is now one of the most visually impressive exhibits in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, following its purchase for the French state from the Salon of 1895, where it won a gold medal.

Romantic though this may appear today, it is a precisely detailed account of the complex, strenous, dangerous and above all primitive working conditions of the local fishermen of Valencia, who still used teams of oxen to haul their boats up the beach. While you’re relishing the warm sunlight filling the huge sail, consider how difficult this task is, and how dangerous it must have been to work with those powerful animals, and several tons of wooden boat hull, in wind and waves.

Pescadores Valencianos
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), Valencian Fishermen (1895), oil on canvas, 65 x 87 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Valencian Fishermen (1895) is perhaps a little more relaxed, and a far smaller essay in the work of the fishermen as they maintain their gear at the water’s edge.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923), White Slave Trade (1895), oil on canvas, 166.5 x 194 cm, Museo Sorolla, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Another painting which Sorolla exhibited successfully at the Salon in 1895 was White Slave Trade (1895), an epitome of the contemporary trade in prostitutes in Spain.

Set in a similarly bleak railway compartment to Another Marguerite, four young women are asleep while being transported in the care of a much older woman. In contrast to their guardian, who wears black, the young women are dressed in bright-coloured Valencian regional costumes, and wear fashionable shoes. Their few possessions are stacked on the bench at the right, and include a guitar. The ‘slave trade’ to which Sorolla’s title refers is, of course, the movement of prostitutes between brothels. This could have been from Valencia to the port of Cartagena, then over to Orán and Algeria, as suggested by Powell for example.

The theme of prostitution had been brought to the fore in Naturalism by the Norwegian painter and writer Christian Krohg, whose first novel published in 1886 had documented its problems in Oslo, and which he had depicted in Albertine in the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room (1885-87), a work which Sorolla is unlikely to have seen, but may well have heard about.

In the next and concluding article, next week, I will look at a couple of fascinating paintings of contemporary science, and more of the fishing industry.


Véronique Gerard Powell (2019) Sorolla and ‘social painting’, in Sorolla, Spanish Master of Light, National Gallery and Yale UP, ISBN 978 1 85709 642 2.