childhood portrayed by Sorolla

“The sea, the sun, the child. Here are the three essential elements of his pictorial concept”, with this quote from Silvio Lago he begins the happy age. This exhibition on childhood in Sorolla’s painting, organized by the Sorolla Museum and its foundation, opens its doors on February 1 at the Sorolla Museum in Madrid.

Childhood has always had a special relevance in his paintings. Therefore, the Sorolla Museum has carried out an investigation curated by the museum’s curators, Sonia Martínez Requena and Covadonga Pitarch Angulo, about his painting in relation to the childhood of the time.

“Until now, an in-depth study of the image of childhood in Joaquín Sorolla’s painting had not been carried out,” Covadonga Pitarch, curator of the exhibition, tells

A sample made up of 44 pieces, of which 25 come mainly from private collections and other institutions. These paintings are divided into three areas: the center of the family, the world of children and the other childhood.

Motherhood, family and bourgeoisie

In the first part of the exhibition, entitled the center of the familyJoaquin Sorolla portrays the new concept of motherhood that was imposed throughout the 19th century. A term referring to “the devoted mother who raises her children, who nurses them, who cares for them when they are sick and who educates them,” explains Pitarch.

One of the most important paintings in the exhibition and one that exemplifies this new figure of women is Mother. A painting that conveys “the feelings of the birth of a new child, the tiredness after giving birth and the happiness of having the whole family”, indicates the curator. In addition, this painting highlights its white monochrome, of which Pitarch defines as “a true symphony of whites”.

The Swing, 1894 J.Sorolla

Although Sorolla not only focuses on parenting, but also portrays “those working women on the beaches of Valencia”, indicates Pitarch. Likewise, another type of upbringing is made visible, such as that of women who took care of other children. The swing represents this theme, “it has not been seen since the exhibition that was held in 1963. So it is a unique opportunity,” says the curator.

“There is an interest in forming family galleries and wealthy families also order portraits of their descendants”

This section also exposes the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, since from these elites “there is an interest in forming family galleries and wealthy families also commission portraits of their descendants.” These little known paintings represent 10% of the portraits that Sorolla made throughout his career on children.

The inner world of children: education and play

From the end of the 18th century through Enlightenment theories and especially with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the idea that children should be children and thus enjoy their childhood begins to prevail.

Elenita at her desk, 1898 J.Sorolla

Sorolla shows these two areas, play and study, through paintings such as Elena at her desk The jumping rope. In addition, hehe Sorolla family was very concerned about the education of their children. Since they studied “in a mixed, secular school, with extracurricular activities and games,” highlights Sonia Martínez, curator of the exhibition.

This importance for education is also demonstrated in some of the painter’s portraits of his children. Among them, one stands out his son Joaquín who paints on an easel. A painting that is exhibited in that same support. “We have exposed it like this because it seemed like a very nice game to see and expose how the child was working,” explains Martínez.

the joy of water

This thought on education by Sorolla, defender of the free institution of education, is related to this second part of The children’s World, in which he portrays childhood through nature.

For the training of children, the painter supported the need to go on excursions and be in contact with nature. “We have put together a series of paintings that show that complicity with nature, those healthy and happy children, who ultimately represent such a pleasant time for everyone,” says Martínez.

Sorolla called these children “the joy of water”. A balanced sample of different times of the year, which is reflected with the winter sun in girls on the beach, and with the typical summer pictures like Bathtime.


The other childhood: the B side of happiness

The end of the exhibition is reserved for children belonging to the most humble social classes and that are far from those portraits of the children of wealthy bourgeois families. Sorolla reflected in his paintings what he saw, “he does not do it with the intention of making a social criticism, simply from the point of view of naturalism,” says Sonia Martínez.

In the majority of this sample, the children cannot study or play because they work to contribute to the family support. And although it may seem that some tasks are bearable, “they really are children who are making a physical effort”Martinez points out.

“They are not happy children, but it does also lead them to their favorite element, water”

In the previous paintings there are children full of vitality and health, and here the opposite is reflected, illness and death. As is the case with sad legacy, in which the painter portrays children with mobility problems. “They are not happy children, but it does also lead them to their favorite element, water, although in this painting it has a much more threatening color,” explains the curator.

Head of a child on the bed, 1883 J.Sorolla

Lastly, that maternity that enjoyed joy at the arrival of the children in the first part of the exhibition has here its antithesis with the loss of them. At the end of the 19th century, infant mortality rates were still very high.

Child’s head in bed It reflects the death of the son of Juan Peyró Urrea, a Valencian painter with whom Sorolla met in his youth. “We have not yet been able to know if he treats it directly naturally or if he rather gets the help of some post-mortem photography”. Since at this time posthumous portraits were also very common.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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