Cabeza de italiana
(Head of an Italian Girl
) was painted while Joaquín Sorolla was a student at the Academia Española de Bellas Artes in Rome, and was fondly dedicated to his uncle “Pepe,” José Piqueres. After the death of his parents in 1865, at the age of two, Sorolla and his younger sister Concha were adopted by his aunt Isabel and her husband, José, a locksmith in Valencia. The young Sorolla, nicknamed “Chimet,” showed an early aptitude for drawing, and though his uncle hoped he would apprentice his trade, he supported the young artist’s development. After years of study and well-received early compositions, Sorolla set his sights beyond Spain, and with his El Grito des Palleter
(The Palleter declaring War on Napoleon
, Disputación de Valencia) in 1884, won a competitive study grant to Rome sponsored by Valencia’s provincial council. In January 1885, just before turning twenty-two, Sorolla left for Italy, and upon arrival, visited Francisco Pradilla, director of the Academia, and was introduced to influential teachers José Villegas and Emilio Sala, along with fellow students— many from his native Valencia, including José and Mariano Benlliure. While receiving instruction from masters of grand academic painting was critical to Sorolla’s foundation, the lessons learned did not align with his own burgeoning artistic sensibilities (Jose Luis Diez and Javier Barón, “Joaquín Sorolla, Painter,” Joaquín Sorolla 1863-1923
, exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2009, p. 22-3; Francisco Pons Sorolla, “The Painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida,” The Painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida
, exh. cat., 1989,
p. 19-20). After only a few months in Rome, Sorolla, like so many of his young contemporaries, felt the lure of Paris, sketching the busy boulevards and crowded cafés as he experienced them. He also visited the Salon
and retrospective exhibitions of Adolf von Menzel and Jules Bastien-Lepage whose naturalism had a particularly profound impact. Indeed, it was in Paris, as the early artist and art critic Aureliano de Beruete remarked, that “for the first time Sorolla would open his eyes to the movement that was beginning in modern painting” and would inform works like Cabeza de italiana
(as quoted in Blanca Pons Sorolla, Joaquín Sorolla
, n.d., p. 60).
Returning to Rome, Sorolla continued to experiment with a myriad of styles, techniques and subjects—from religious and literary painting (in part to fulfill the demands of his grant) to sensual scenes of Greco-Roman civilization which aligned with the work of his Spanish colleagues. Although elements of these compositions, particularly his bold handling of color and line, are evident in the present work, the energetic brushwork that builds the young model’s costume and wavy hair, and the careful attention to minute elements of her expression, point to the naturalists Sorolla encountered in Paris (as well as Italian naturalists like Francisco Paolo Michetti (1851-1929)). Although the identity of the model is not recorded, it would seem she was studied from life, her portrait both capturing her specific personality and elevating her to an icon of rural life in a manner similar to the work of realist painter Jules Breton (see lots 10, 13). In the year before the present work’s execution, Sorolla had been criticized for just such “sketches from life” by the Academie when submitting his Tres cabezas de hombre for shipment to Valencia. Such unfavorable reviews may point to why Cabeza de italiana was, like a similar sketch dedicated to his wife Clotilde, given to beloved family rather than submitted for official review or included in the works the artist sold to dealers to supplement his travel stipend (fig. 1). Indeed, in some ways for Sorolla, Cabeza de italiana was ahead of its time—and in many ways it foreshadowed his mature style, which would earn him international fame.