Two figures sit in the stern of the fishing boat. Shaded and aided by the magnificent sail, they prepare to beach the huge wooden form – at once supremely elegant and massive in its bulk - with apparent ease to unload the day's catch. The sun strikes the canvas of the sail and lights up the wooden deck fore and aft, as the vessel glides to a halt in the shallows, the rhythmic undulations of the sea gently slapping the boat’s wooden keel as it sails forth.
The painting develops a theme of fishermen plying their trade that had long fascinated Sorolla. As a boy growing up in Valencia he had always valued the town's beaches, and as an artist influenced by the call of the Naturalist painters – Jules Bastien-Lepage in particular – to paint what you know best, the Valencian shoreline and the local fishing community was a compelling theme.
First appearing in his work following his return from his studies in Rome, in 1894 his seminal The Return from Fishing was awarded highest honours at the Paris Salon and was acquired by the French State to hang in the Luxembourg Palace. Over the next ten years Sorolla recorded with increasing verve and realism the local fishermens’ working lives, be they striving against the elements to land their haul, mending their nets on the beach or relaxing on board their boats. On seeing his sun filled work at the Exposition Universelle in Paris of 1900 Claude Monet hailed Sorolla as the ‘The master of light above all other’.), Madrid, 2009, p. 307).
What changed in the years that elapsed between his early Paris Salon success and the painting of Barca en la playa de Valencia was his interpretation of his Valencian subject matter. In the early 1890s his message was consciously Social Realist, his youthful ambition emphasising the hardship of a fisherman’s life, and his titles imbuing his subject matter with a political edge. This was overtly expressed in such large canvases as And They Still Say Fish is Expensive!, a composition that depicts a fisherman receiving medical aid below deck, having suffered a severe accident on board, accompanied by an accusatory title.
But as his star rose, he travelled more, and his subject matter grew more diverse, so Sorolla's depictions of fishermen became less loaded with a contemporary message. Instead he aligned Valencia’s fishing traditions with the region’s classical past, ennobling his subject matter in the process. The dhow-like profile of the fishing boat in Barca en la playa de Valencia is the expression of timeless age-old traditions that draw upon the area’s antique past that is at the core of the composition, and gives it its meaning.
Underlying his appreciation for Valencia was his love of painting, his consummate mastery of painterly technique matched by his passion for his work, especially when by the Mediterranean. In a letter to his wife Clotilde, Sorolla eulogised: ‘Today I have continued [painting], every time I am more enamoured of nature, so much so that between the sea and the splendid sun I think my happiest days are those on the beach.’ Of his compulsion to paint Blanca Pons Sorolla has noted: ‘…[Sorolla] simply could not survive without painting… As Sorolla himself would say: “I paint because I love painting. For me it is an immense pleasure”’. (Blanca Pons Sorolla, p. 276).
The fruits of his labour – his compulsion and his compassion over many years – are clearly evident in the present work: in the bravura brushstrokes, the liquid paint surface and his striking use of colour to evoke a symphony of sunlit sail, aquamarine water and blue sky anchored by the rugged form of the wooden fishing vessel returning from the catch.
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