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Sorolla and fashion: two Madrid museums host exhibition exploring the dialogue between art and haute couture

The Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum and the Sorolla Museum organize an exhibition dedicated to the presence of fashion in the work of Joaquín Sorolla that will take place, simultaneously and complementarily in both museums, until 27 May. Sorolla was very interested in fashion and this exhibition shows 70 paintings showing women in the late 18th century and early 20th century in the fashion of those times. Here is presented paintings of national and international private collections, some of which have never been publicly exhibited before.
In the last third of the 19th century, a person’s external appearance was considered a manifestation of their inner character. This is why clothing played such an important role, and the smallest detail was revelatory of the person’s identity. Thus, the ‘art of elegance' had an even greater value than beauty for some mindsets of that period.

Joaquin Sorolla is for the Spanish, what Monet was for the French — an impressionist painter who knew how to bring light to his work. Extremely interested in fashion, Sorolla was the perfect chronicler of the changes that took place in trends and styles in clothing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His works offer an evocative catalogue of dresses, jewels and accessories, all emphasised by his loose, dynamic brushstroke.
Joaquín Sorolla painting in his studio, 1911. Photo: RICARDO DEL RIVERO
Curated by Eloy Martínez de la Pera, the exhibition offer to look at the artist from the other side: the works in the halls of the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum give us an idea of the attentive look of Joaquin Sorolla on the changing aesthetic notions of fashion. The exquisite taste of the artist, fervent interest in everything around him, as well as belonging to the higher class allowed him to keep abreast of the latest developments in the fashion world and to be the most passionate participant in a rapidly changing life.

Joaquín Sorolla was an enthusiastic spectator, capable to capturing the beauty of people in street life, and very attentive to changes in fashion, elegance and social manners. His portraits are a catalogue of period clothing, and we can see the detail of the fabrics, the shine of the silks, the rich textures of the velvets and lace but, above all, the style, bearing and grace of the figures that fashion has created in its constant evolutions. In his trips to Paris, Sorolla took advantage of leisure time to do one of his favourite things: buy clothing for his wife and two daughters.

The family was one of the pillars of Sorolla’s life. His many depictions of family scenes and everyday life, be they group portraits, engaging pictures of his children or, in particular, the very beautiful, refined portraits he made over the years of his wife and muse Clotilde bear witness to this.

Left: Sorolla painting Clotilde dressed in black, 1906. Museo Sorolla, Madrid

The Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum presents the exhibition divided into four sections: Sorolla in private, dedicated to the artist’s family environment; Society portraits, where we will know fashion through the commissions of high society portraits of the time; Elegant summers, where Sorolla masterfully captures fashion on the seashore; and Paris and modern life, where the artist shows the novelties produced in haute couture, and which served as inspiration when making his portraits.
  • Joaquin Sorolla. "Pair on Horseback", 1906 (detail), oil on canvas. Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia. Valencian regional costume, property of María Sorolla García Silk, cotton and metal.
  • Joaquin Sorolla. "Clotilde in Gray Dress", 1900 (detail) Oil on canvas. Museo Sorolla, Madrid. Dress, about 1906–8 Silk crepon, silk taffeta and tulle.

Society portraits

Throughout his career Sorolla received many commissions to portray not only members of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy but also Spanish royalty. He also made portraits of prominent members of American society, whom he met during his trips to the USA. In these paintings he describes and reveals the "soul"of an elite class, the way they were and, above all, their wish to be recognized as such. A few of these works faithfully reproduce turn-of-the-century fashions, which are more classical and somewhat nostalgic for the past.
Joaquin Sorolla. King Alfonso XIII in a hussar uniform

A large ceremonial portrait of the king Alfonso XIII in natural growth in the park is also presented at exhibition. Sorolla wrote to his wife about this work: "… he is very handsome, in his wonderful costume of a hussar from Pavia, wearing it in a special Spanish manner, as the king wanted himself."

Left: Joaquin Sorolla. "King Alfonso XIII in Hussar’s Uniform", 1907 (detail). Oil on canvas, 208×108.5 cm. Private collection

Elegant summers

In the second half of 19th century the therapeutic properties of sea baths were discovered, and Spanish coasts and beaches became destinations recommended by doctors.
Fashionable clothing and sophisticated accessories such as parasols and hats played an essential role in these elegant settings ans Sorolla reflects this impeccably in his portraits painted by the sea, mostly of members of his family.

Paris and modern life

The "modern" lifestyle, which emerged in cities in the late 19th century, was characterized by the appearance of new social customs and forms of entertainment. During his trips to Paris, Sorolla carefully studied the latest novelties in women’s haute couture, which inspired some of his portraits.
  • Joaquin Sorolla. "Isabel Herraud de Fernández Corella", 1898
  • Joaquin Sorolla. "Queen Victoria Eugenia in a Theater Box at the Teatro Real", 1918 (detail)
For its part, the Sorolla Museum offers us the chance to make a tour adapted to the museum spaces, also addressing four themes: A fashionable house, in which we will be able to see portraits of the own family of Sorolla; Society portraits, where through different commissions of portraits we will know the fashion from the Belle Époque to the most traditional fashion; An elegant family, in which we will discover the elegance of his family; and A hidden Fortuny, that we will see in the garland of fruits with which Sorolla decorated the dining room of his house.
Sorolla was one of the main portrait artists for the aristocratic and industrial middle classes of his time, and he helped to shape the image of late nineteenth century Spanish society. In his commissioned portraits, the women normally posed in their finest clothes, as their dress is an essential part of their elegance, although these late 19th-century portraits no longer focus on elegant exteriors but on the naturalness of the subject’s gestures.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum on its official site offers the virtual tour of exhibition that leads visitors through all the rooms.
In recent years, thanks to the publication of monographs and studies and the holding of exhibitions, there has been more analysis on the different facets of Joaquín Sorolla’s work, including the importance of the portrait, to such a degree that some of his works are now considered essential to the history of Spanish portraiture: from his portraits done inside, which reveal his admiration of Velázquez (such as in "My family (La Familia)", 1901, at this exhibition) to his portraits in the open air, which were his main contribution to this genre. Sorolla left us an admirable and large gallery of characters, ranging from aristocrats, writers, scientists and artists, as well as friends and members of his own family.
Joaquin Sorolla. My family
My family
1901, 185×159 cm
The exhibition "Sorolla and Fashion" will be on view till 27 May 2018 in Madrid.
Based on materials from official website of The Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Sorolla Museum and others resources.

Title illustration: Joquin Sorolla. "Under the Awning, Zarauz", 1910