Awarded highest honours when exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris for its accomplished execution and poignant message (its working title had been Children of Pleasure), the outdoor setting of Sad Inheritance presaged the canvases of children frolicking on the seashore that would come to characterise his work of the next decade.
In the present work Sorolla captures the spontaneity and drama of the moment. On the horizon a quartet of jaunty sails tack into the wind; the whites of the waves roll in in the middle distance; nearer to us boys gambol in an aquamarine sea, and on the beach in the foreground is silhouetted a single figure.
It was clear that the scene Sorolla first encountered had affected him considerably, he recalled: '...at a distance I saw a few naked boys in the sea watched over by the vigorous figure of a friar on the beach. Apparently they were from the Hospital of San Juan de Dios, the sadest detritus of society: blind, mad, handicapped or leprous. I cannot tell you how strongly I was impressed to work on the spot...' (quoted in Joaquín Sorolla, 1863-1923, exh. cat., Madrid, 2009, p. 265).
Indeed so influenced was he by the subject that he had difficulty finishing the large scale composition. And, even after dispatching it to Paris for the 1900 exhibition, he continued to worry, writing: 'I have painted it with my soul, but as it is very personal, I fear it will not be understood. This Sad Inheritance is my nightmare and my fear... I made it because I was struck by the power of the scene. It was so beautiful and so sad...' (letter to Pedro Gil Moreno de Mora, 15 February 1900, translated from Facundo Tomás et al, Epistolarios de Joaquín Sorolla, vol. II, Barcelona, 2008, p. 133).
Of course Sorolla's worries were unfounded, and following its peerless critical success at the Paris exhibition, in 1901 the painting took the highest award at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid. Reassured, and marking a watershed moment in his career, Sorolla offered at least three of the preparatory oil sketches of this talismanic work as gifts to artist friends and acquaintances: in 1903 to John Singer Sargent (fig. 2), in 1906 to William Merit Chase and in the same year the present painting to Laparra, thus accounting for the post-dated dedication, inscription and signature.
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