The Painting Of Sorolla
( Originally Published 1916 )
The Sorolla exhibition held by the Hispanic Society in 1910 was a portentous success. Day after day thousands of people bustled each other through the narrow galleries. A mile of motor-cars slowly crept past the white building to take away exhausted and delighted visitors. It was as if New York had suddenly discovered art. As a permanent memorial of the exhibition, the Hispanic Society reprinted eight of the chief appreciations of this conquering painter of sunlight, adding also the tributes of the press, and what is more important a complete illustrated catalogue of the show.' This record of an unexampled popular and critical enthusiasm has evident documentary value. The future may take it very seriously as a literary and psychological curiosity. To the present writer it was a disconcerting chorus of praise for a kind of work that he cannot believe has enduring stuff in it. One may agree with everything that is said about Sorolla's athleticism of the brush and ready command of the primary colors, one may accept his gusto without cavil, and yet question whether the zeal that took nearly 160,000 people to see his pictures had much to do with the more permanent qualities of art.
Since the critics in this volume have done full justice to his extraordinary powers, we feel the freer to point out his obvious limitations. A lack of reflective quality in his work has been generally admitted, but the implications of this criticism have not been fully drawn. Keen as is his vision and amazing as is his executive talent, they both have a kind of commonness. These canvases, upon which, in the words of his pupil, Mr. Starkweather, he has made "a furious assault" in the open air, are, to begin with, casually composed. Their pictorial arrangement is either nil or of the most obvious sort. A great relish has gone into them, but no thought and little selection. They are random sections of a vivid and continuous panorama. He sees much as the kodak or picnicking mankind see, and that is surely the ground of his enormous popularity.
What French critic it was that said, "Where there is no delicacy there is no art–Ou il n'y a pas de finesse, il n'y a pas d'art"-I do not now recall, but I am sure that the saying is just, and that its application to the work of Sorolla will be something like a condemnation. But first I must apologize for using so old-fashioned and unpopular a word as delicacy in connection with art, or, rather, I must explain away the invidious associations of the word. The rude fret with which a rug-maker of the Caucasus adorns a border is also highly refined. With pious care the worker has tied thousands of knots under equal tension, has scrupulously followed the proper lines of the warp, has cautiously and with delicate urging pressed down successive rows of knots upon the solid pile, finally has clipped each tuft daintily that the fabric may lie even. Only through such thoughtfulness-such refinement of workman-ship, let me insist-will the bold pattern come out with all the crispness of a design in mosaic. If any part of the process is shirked or abridged, the rug, for its barbaric color, may still delight a careless eye; but no collector will want it on his floor. So the early and apparently crude enamels of Limoges are really most delicate, the relation of exposed metal to vitreous color being instinctively well calculated, and the broad masses of flaming enamel being adjusted to form a harmonious whole. So is the most casual scrawl of Daumier refined. Before moving the crayon he has been sure of the feeling and the stroke. The judgment may have been instantaneous, but it is a judgment and not a chance shot.
Because the work of Sorolla has almost nothing of this quality of judgment and reflection, it seems to me, in spite of its indisputable gusto and force, to take a rather low place as art. To the most obvious effects of motion, blazing sunlight, physiognomy even, he has willingly sacrificed all those delicacies of contour, texture, and rhythm which to a patient eye nature offers so royally. Or, rather, he has not sacrificed, could not sacrifice, what apparently he has not even seen. Four of his most admired pictures are at the Metropolitan Museum. One is a huddle of red oxen under the swelling sail of a stranded bark; another, three graceful girls poised in the iridescent whirl of a broken wave; still another shows a girl with her rosy form glowing under a diaphanous wet robe while a lad places the mantle about her shoulders; the last picture is of boys swimming frog-like in green water-a technical triumph, for neither land nor sky is admitted to explain the subject. What of these pictures ? Each and all they have the radiance of our badly tied rug. On inspection the impetuosity of the workmanship is seen to be coarse and obvious, the vision that of the camera, not of the sensitive eye. The beautiful form of the nearest girl in "The Bath, Javea," is marred by the rude strokes that are to mean reflected sunlight.
Generally speaking, this insistence on the bleak reflection of the sun is the painter's foible, and the formula of the yellowish splotch becomes as tiresome as that of the crimson shadow. In all four of these pictures the arrangement is casual, or rather wanting entirely. The lines of breakers in the background cut the charming group in "After the Bath" in a way to interrupt and impair the swing of the composition. "The Boys Swimming" is simply a brilliant sketch. The picture of oxen hauling up a boat, despite its heroic proportions, is a snapshot. It curiously lacks the dignity and vitality that would justify the scale. The brisk and efficient facture wholly lacks style. The picture gives a thrill, and one is content never to see it again. There never will be anything more in it than one has grasped in the twinkling of a casual eye. To illustrate the possibility and value of style in such a subject, let me recall Besnard's famous canvas of two bay horses kicking off flies. Here we have the same scale and almost the same blond color scheme. But in Sorolla there is a dispersion of interest, while in Besnard there is a concentration of nervous energy that makes his restless beasts memorable and almost monumental. The Parisian has fundamental fineness of vision and a sense for economy of workmanship, while the Valencian has the genial, roving vision of every man, and either thinks not at all or paints faster than he thinks. "The Bath, Javea," comes very near to being a fine picture, and fails only for lack of thought. The vigorous swirl of the broken wave has none of the lovely quality of moving water. It is as untranslucent as a breadth of watered silk. The rocks, which might have lent stability to the motive, are realized neither in the energy of their forms nor in the interest of their textures. The delightful pictorial motive of the poised bodies of these children has been actually attenuated in the working out.
"But nobody paints sunlight like SorolIa," I hear a hundred devotees exclaim indignantly. This, I think, is a misconception. He merely paints it big and paints it all the time. In actual coruscation I think Tarbell equals him; Besnard surely does. But it is time we got over the idea that it is necessarily a merit to make a picture look hot and blinding. Technically, such an accomplishment goes for what it is worth; pictorially, it may come to very little. I am somewhat of the late Burne-Jones's mind that such impressionists "don't make anything else but atmosphere-and I don't think that's enough; I don't think it's very much." My regret about Senor Sorolla is that, making cubic miles of atmosphere, he seems to me to make it speciously and badly. He knows shrewdly all the short cuts to _expression. His methods are those of the scene-painter or the contriver of panoramas. But I am glad to take Sorolla's art quite on its own terms, and my regret is not that it is dazzling, but that to this minor quality have been sacrificed accuracy of atmospheric construction, fine linear quality, and general equilibrium.
Disequilibrium, in fact, is the especial characteristic of his art. Where there are several of his pictures present the eye does not rest so contentedly upon one that it is loath to leave, but moves rapidly from one to another. It is like looking out of so many windows, with no reason for choosing any one. And here is not an embarrassment of riches, but simply the disorderly impression that nature makes before it has been sifted through an artist's temperament. The conditions of this painting preclude such sifting. The subject is chosen quickly and as swiftly executed. A few hours of intense labor in the open air and one of these big canvases is done. A despairing disciple is reported to have groaned: "He [Sorolla] paints as a cow eats." The compliment was perhaps excessive: a cow is a ruminant. Only by reflection does the artist impose fully upon outer appearances that inward harmony the possession of which is his title of nobility. If an artist has no fine individual forms and works on no instinctive geometry, then he is scarcely an artist at all, and his work, however brilliant in executive quality, becomes at bottom copyistic, purposeless, and, except as it may supply memoranda to a really creative spirit, null. When one has said that Sorolla's paintings are huge sketches one has admitted a great excellence of a small kind-their freshness and spontaneity, qualities once universal, and now rare only because painting has almost ceased to be a significant art; and one has equally denied to these brilliant improvisations all the more lasting and serious attributes.
"Why shouldn't a man make big sketches, since they evidently please him and delight us?" I hear the legion of enthusiasts that sought Sorolla at the confines of Manhattan pro-testing. There is, indeed, no reason why any one should not make any socially innocuous thing he likes to make, and sell it for what he can get. The reasons for not making big sketches which seem to be pictures, but are not, are not chiefly moraj-though on that ground, too, something might be said-but aesthetic. John La Farge has somewhere stated the issue, and I paraphrase him freely from memory. The sketch is a mere transfer from reality, an episodical memorandum, an unrelated thing. We know it is a sketch from the fact that it has no bounds, but simply occurs upon the paper or canvas. If we frame it, that is a mere matter of convenience; it does not thereby become a picture. If, however, it is calculated with respect to bounds, the sheet of paper, a frame, then it is already a picture. And this is the meaning of Whistler's famous epigram that the fine work of art is finished as soon as it is begun. If what purports to be a picture is not calculated with regard to its bounds, then, however robust the work or attractive the theme, it is a pretense. The maker has lightly usurped an alien glory the severe terms of which he has evaded. It is the absence of thoughtful arrangement and of real fineness of execution that makes me feel that the work of Sorolla is, in a sense, outside of art, as a certain kind of facile writing is outside of literature; of facile elocution, outside of oratory.
I could wish his method far finer, for then we should have had in his career a positive test of the value of the impressionistic attitude. As it is, his achievement, being far out of the common, is exemplary in this regard. As strenuous executant, always face to face with nature and resolutely minimizing the part of memory, that is, of accumulated individual intelligence, in his art, he has been the impressionist a outrance of our times. And over the Giverny school he has had the advantage of proceeding without theory or convention, as of dots, juxtaposed primary pigments, or the like. But, of course, impressionism has never rested on such formulas. It is not a procedure, but a theory of vision. The transaction by which an artist transcribes into his favorite medium the impression made by nature is required to be brief, concentrated, isolated from memory of similar transactions. Brief, because nature and the impressions she causes are constantly in flux; concentrated, because only so can the momentary impression be converted into the work of art; isolated, because otherwise the impression becomes contaminated with alien experiences. The true impressionist theoretically should have no intellectual or emotional stock in trade-merely the necessary executive habits.
Every transaction with nature is a new be-ginning, though it be the twentieth. sketch of the same haystack or cathedral facade. The point is to see with the innocent eye, and not let your cerebral accumulations trouble either your naive vision or your unhesitating hand. Such, in brief, is the impressionist gospel. Extraneous dogmas are the sanctity of sun-light and of atmosphere. The real point is always the inhibition and total distrust of memory. Paint always before the object; paint nothing that you cannot carry off in a single impulse-these are the main precepts. Forget all previous work, including your own, is the watchword.
It is inconceivable that a habit of work and vision demanding the severest concentration and at least half-based on inhibitions-a most disciplinary regimen, in short-should have passed for a kind of slovenly insincerity. The fact that the drawing of Mallet and the painting of Monet should have been accounted merely odd, showed how much the revolt was needed. The world was truly in a state deprecated centuries before in China by a painter who bewailed the fact that people wished to see his pictures with their ears. We needed a revolution of a violent kind to restore to the eye its simple rights as first counsellor for the graphic and, plastic arts.
Yet it was a hasty and false conclusion that, because painters had misused their memories, that faculty must be suspended. Indeed, the most candid impressionists would admit that such abeyance of associations was psychologically impossible. The associations of any human experience may always rise out of latency-must do so, surely, when any habitual act is accomplished. The best we can do is to practise such concentration upon the impression of the moment that relatively the allied cerebral associations are mute. The kind of hypnosis really implied in the impressionistic attitude is impossible, or, if attainable, incompatible with the accomplishment of any conscious act whatsoever. Still, roughly speaking, a high degree of impressionistic abstraction is possible, and without it one cannot become an artist worthy of the name. At bottom, waiving mere studio recipes and themes which are more or less imposed by the spirit of the time, impressionism means, and, except in periods of decadence, always has meant, no more than simple loyalty to natural appearances. The arduous endeavor to make mere pigment cope with the complexity of the thing seen, the desire to make the necessary formulas correspond with reality, the renunciation of dull recipes, the purging of the eye as regards indolent, non-visual accumulations of the mind-this has been the straight and narrow way followed by every painter worthy of his salt. The luminists of today happen to bulk large and claim the honors of impressionism be-cause they are innovators in the new themes of sunlight and atmosphere. They well deserve the credit that falls to all archaic craftsmanship, but so far as their temper and methods are not traditional they are mostly bad.
Since impressionism is merely realism taken in its true and not in its sordid sense, it represents a stage through which every artist not wholly fantastical must pass. To stay in the impressionistic stage is wilfully to dwarf one-self; the only worse thing would be to leave it never to return. Through grappling with nature and life the personality is constantly enriched, and its spoils from experience are unconsciously transformed into patterns akin to the man himself. Memory is sifting and fining the mass, rejecting here, confirming there. After a time immediate visual experience becomes less valuable for its own sake, being in a manner repetition, than as a stimulus which concentrates this garnered experience upon a given occasion. Necessarily, the pouring of the visual wisdom of a lifetime into a pictorial composition is a rather delicate process and cannot be hurried. Here dispositions and abilities differ greatly, but, in general, one may say that we hardly know of any great work that has not been incubated deliberately. Misapprehensions have obscured this obvious truth. We talk as if Velasquez painted a masterpiece in a matter of a few hours. We forget that all his great compositions show numerous corrections, that the incredibly delicate texture of his flesh simply cannot be achieved in a single painting, and we forget also to reckon in his thinking before he set brush to canvas. Unquestionably, Monet's Haystacks and Cathedrals and Water-Lilies are delightful things, and were painted as the impressionistic law demands, each picture in a few hours' time. But Monet had the steadying effect of a fixed scientific formula, and those enchanting pictures of the Thames which represent his apogee give every indication of being done slowly, thoughtfully, and largely in the studio.
In short, the wise artist learns to bring the whole man-and the most and better part of man is memory-to bear. Any other policy is as false economy as to paint with tied hands or wearing colored goggles. If the artist who has not grown out of impressionism into self-reliance falls short of the stature of a complete aesthetic personality, he who has or thinks he has outgrown the need of direct and tonic contact with nature is in peril of fatty degeneration. The ability to command at will the innocence of the eye is to success in art what the capacity to be as a little child is to perfection in Christian character. It is because Senor Sorolla has complacently remained at the stage of trilling scales and astounding arpeggios while the symphonies are waiting to be composed that I have to regard him as a virtuoso rather odd and diverting than really worth while.
"Why don't you out with it and say you don't like his painting?" The question is fair and wants a straight answer. I do like his painting. I get from it the keen thrill that a brass band or a deep baritone declaiming the "Holy City " never fails to produce in my eminently sympathetic sensorium. Such impressions have their value, but I do not need to seek them: they frequently come my way. That I have rarely heard quite so fine a polychromatic brass band as that of Senor Sorolla I gladly admit; but I still prefer the orchestra, or even a more tenuous music, that may hint at heights and depths within a life.
"At least he is a consummate technician." For twenty years I have been familiar with his work, and I cannot see in his bravura the signs of the finest execution. It is wonderfully telling, which is quite a different matter. Its emphasis is adjusted not to the fine, but to the ordinary eye. The structure of many of these pictures is as vague as their arrangement. A superficial and certainly skilful application of accents takes the place of real draftsman-ship. Everything is a shimmer and an arabesque which have rather slight relations either with the character of the objects or with their atmospheric values. Here we must take issue with most of the writers in the book of the exhibition. Sorolla has invented a brilliant short-hand which almost attains illusion, but his is emphatically not the vision nor the patience to seize those subtle variations of luminosity by which objects appear nearer or farther. To replace such study he has a whole bagful of vivacious expedients. What does it mean to a painter that many of the pictures and nearly all the sketches simply are disintegrated when transcribed in half-tone cuts of fair execution ? Why, merely that the values are all false. A little clever handling of the edges of the planes, here and there a dash of inorganic red, or yellow, or blue-such arbitrary oppositions will to a careless eye give a sense of structure where it really is not.
It may seem that I have left rather little of what criticism has regarded as a first-rate talent, and that such isolated scepticism requires a fuller substantiation. Well, I have given my reasons, and some of the pictures are at the Metropolitan Museum and the Hispanic Society to prove me right or wrong. Furthermore, a good deal is left even with the proposed reservations, quite enough to account both for the critical and popular vogue of Sorolla. For the motion of things, the dynamic of water, earth, and the figure, he has an extraordinary sense. His relish in the energy of appearances is his most winning quality, and were his vision finer and his hand more restrained, this quality might readily lift him to real greatness. As it is, he attains merely the ad captandum facility of certain orators and poets who manage to be uncommonly well adjusted to the common likings.
The joy of life and of the open is strong in the man. To him we owe rare glimpses of sun-soaked strands we should never otherwise see, of lithe wet figures glistening in the dazzling radiance, of proudly swelling sails saturated with sunshine. These are pleasant things, and for bringing them to our doors we are grateful to the Hispanic Society and to Senor Sorolla. But subjects and facility and bravura and naive joy of life all pass, while art remains; and the artists who come to meet us we naturally love more dearly than those that require us to come, perhaps through difficulties, to them. The future historian of the psychology of the throng will marvel that a New York before whom Besnard and Zorn had been brought, which boasted, itself, an Alden Weir and a Childe Hassam, which knew the work of the consummate technician Tarbell, put itself to sheer physical discomfort to get a passing glimpse of the paintings of Sorolla. Since the handsome volumes published by the His-panic Society will explain the phenomenon only in part, I have been at the possibly unwarranted pains of writing these ungracious paragraphs for a future history of taste.