Although best known for his seascapes on the shores of Valencia and stunning portraits, landscape painting plays an integral role within the artistic production of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida. The artist’s sole ambition at the very onset of his artistic education in Valencia was ‘to create a frank painting, a painting that would interpret nature as it really is, exactly as it should be seen’ (R. Gil, Joaquín Sorolla, Madrid, 1913, p. 20).
Sorolla’s landscapes earned the artist significant recognition beginning with the exhibition of his first major landscape in 1897 in Madrid, but it was not until 1907 when Sorolla returned to Granja de San Ildefonso to paint his plein air portraits of the King and Queen of Spain that he began to develop a new vision of the landscape, specifically the garden. La Granja was near the mountains and the clear, clean air provided the perfect atmosphere for the convalescence of Sorolla’s young daughter, Maria. At this time, Sorolla’s gardens were often populated with figures, either strolling or relaxing in a tranquil environment . The artist’s approach to the subject matter of the garden as a motif in his oeuvre during 1907 underwent a significant change the following year. Upon Sorolla’s discovery of the lush and extravagant gardens of Andalusia, the figures disappear and the garden itself becomes the subject of the painting.
In February of 1908, Sorolla traveled to Seville to paint a new portrait of the Queen, and while there he painted the gardens of Real Alcázar for the first time (fig. 1). The palace, one of the greatest surviving examples of Mudéjar architecture on the Iberian Peninsula, was designed in a style which was inspired by Moorish taste and workmanship. Sorolla was enraptured by the multisensory delights of these gardens and their discovery changed the artist’s perception of Seville. Among the works painted of the gardens during the artist’s first visit, three were purchased by American collectors, among them Louis Comfort Tiffany.
On a visit two years later, Sorolla painted the present work, a view of the gardens that he painted three times before, and would return to later in his career. Sorolla chose to frame the view of these beautiful gardens differently in each case although all are centered on water, the fundamental element of the Islamic garden. In the present work, the ‘pond reflects the sun-gilded building, dynamised by the water movement created by the ‘string of pearls’ emanating from the Fountain of Mercury’ (M. Lopez, ‘Water’ in T. Llorens et al, Sorolla, Gardens of Light, Madrid, 2012, pp. 36-40). The bronze sculpture of Mercury was created by Diego de Pesquera (1530-1587) and cast by Bartolomé Morel (1504-1579) (fig. 2). The artist brings the viewer to the very edge of the fountain, creating the sensation of being inside the garden in the midst of a sensory symphony formed by the shades of green, the noise of cool water, the scent of the plants and the heat of the sun. The juxtapositions of the strong, saturated yellows of the architecture against the piercing blue of the sky captures perfectly the clear light of the south of Spain.
The Basin of Charles V, Alcazar of Seville was purchased by Sallie Casey Thayer (1856-1925), a Kansas City art collector and advocate. Her diverse collection became the founding gift of the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. Recently the subject of a major exhibition held at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, the San Diego Museum of Art and the Mapfre Foundation in Madrid, Sorolla’s relationship with America was fundamental to his international career and commercial success. Although best understood in terms of patronage, this unique relationship also served to reinforce the artist’s self-belief and to consolidate his position as an artist who was simultaneously accepted by the official establishment, as vouched for by the many Salon and Exposition prizes he won in Europe and America in the 1890s and early 1900s, and by leading collectors and artists of the ‘modern’ school. America allowed Sorolla to develop a European tradition into fertile and receptive territory that could embrace both the old and the new. As he once observed: ‘Your American artists, such as Chase, Sargent, Cecilia Beaux and Gari Melchers – all of whom I am proud to number among my personal friends of long standing – what are they but children of Velazquez, like myself.’
This work is accompanied by the original bill of sale from the 1911 exhibition to Sallie Casey Thayer (Mrs. W. B. Thayer). We are grateful to Blanca Pons-Sorolla for confirming the authenticity of this work, which is registered as no. BPS 1959 in her forthcoming Joaquín Sorolla catalogue raisonné.
(fig. 1): Joaquín Sorolla in the gardens of Real Alcázar, Seville, 1916.
(fig. 2): Estanque de Mercurio, Alcázar, Seville. Image: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, 2018.