Alejandro de Anitúa (acquired from the artist in 1900); thence by descent to the present owners
Painted in the summer of 1900, Sorolla embarked on the present work following the ringing endorsements he had received for his work at the Exposition Universelle in Paris that spring where he was awarded the Grand Prix. Visiting the French capital to collect his prize that May he was applauded by his artistic peers: he met John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini and Anders Zorn, with whom he became great friends; he came into contact with Peder Severin Krøyer; he was fêted by Francisco Domingo, Carlos Durán, Leon Bonnat, Benjamin-Constant and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and there at the exhibition, standing in front of his work, Claude Monet announced Sorolla as 'the master of light'. On his return to Valencia a banquet was held in his honour, a street re-named in recognition of his achievement and he was appointed a 'favourite and right worthy son of the city'.
As the present work so nobly describes, however, such public triumphs did not deflect Sorolla from his urge to record the simple truths of life. In his depiction of villagers coming together to worship and give thanks for a newborn child Sorolla celebrates many of the themes that were most dear to him: family, friends, the importance of community and the traditions of his native Valencia, values that he takes immense pleasure in describing in the rich array of characters and types that were to be found at the heart of any local Valencian community.
At the back of the church a young mother wearing a mantilla and holding her baby swathed in a crisp white baptism robe proceeds down the side aisle with the priest and a young acolyte. In front, two ladies turn to look. Behind, a young man removes his hat as he enters through the west door; pulling aside the blue curtain as he steps into the church a shaft of light illuminates the christening party. In the foreground, seated on simple wooden pews, the congregation gathers: men, women and children, young and old, rich and poor. A young woman whispers to her elderly neighbour. Others reflect, ponder and pray. Prominently seated at the front, a man fingers his rosary as he fixes his gaze in the direction of the altar.
The detail with which Sorolla paints the scene, the individuality that he confers on each figure, and the warmth and intimacy contained within the composition suggests that the painting may record a specific event. The patterns of the dresses are distinctively Valencian, and Blanca Pons Sorolla has suggested that the figure of the lady seated to the right whispering into the ear of the gentleman next to her is that of Clotilde, the artist's wife. Whatever the specific occasion may be, however, away from the noisy clamour of his plaudits and a world of creeping industrialisation, in El Bautizo Sorolla opens a window onto the Valencia that he knew and loved.
Sorolla had painted several specifically religious subjects before, from his ambitious Burial of Christ and Father Jofré Protecting a Madman of the 1880s to Kissing the Relic and Happy Days (fig. 1) of the early 1890s. Earnest and laboured, however, in all these earlier compositions the religious subject unfolds centre stage. In contrast, the success of the present work lies to a large extent in Sorolla's relegation of the subject, the mother, child and priest, to the side aisle. The painter's interest is instead focused on the variety of poses, attitudes and expressions of the congregation. Sorolla borrowed this compositional device from one of his most potent influences and Spanish forbears: Velázquez. As Blanca Pons Sorolla notes: 'Velázquez would become not only Sorolla's true master but also his moderator. When he needed to find new inspiration he would turn to Velázquez.' Sorolla himself referred to Velázquez as 'a giant, the best in the world.' (quoted in Blanca Pons Sorolla, Joaquín Sorolla, London, 2004, p. 78).
In turn, the drama that he instills into the present composition lies not in the narrative of the event itself, but in the combination of the vast curtain at the back of the church being drawn back, and the stark Mediterranean light illuminating an otherwise shrouded interior. Back-lighting a scene became a technique that Sorolla would use increasingly in his work, typically when describing the power of a ship under sail (fig. 2). In El Bautizo the light shining through the west door that dissolves the massive hanging drape lends a Baroque theatricality to this otherwise humble scene.
In developing his distinctive painterly style Sorolla was quick to acknowledge the influence of other artists. When he arrived in Rome on a scholarship in 1885 he recalled that it was Pradilla who honed his graphic technique, and Emilio Sala who developed his painterly skills. Visiting Paris the same year he remembered falling under the spell of the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage. And in 1890 Sorolla met Jiménez Aranda who became a life-long friend and influential teacher. The formative influences of all four of these painters can be deciphered in the present work. Yet by the time Sorolla painted El Bautizo he had been acknowledged for his own unique talent. Praised in Paris for the originality of his vision, his painterly technique and sun drenched palette, El Bautizo exhibits a compositional complexity, painterly control, spontaneity of expression and sensitivity to light that befits a painter who has been admitted into the ranks of the leading artists of the world.
FIG. 1, Joaquín Sorolla, El día feliz (The Happy Day), 1892, Udine, Galleria d'Arte Moderna
FIG. 2, Joaquín Sorolla, La vuelta de la pesca (Return from Fishing), 1894, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
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