It was his most notorious failure and, of course, the one that affected him the most. Joaquín Sorolla painted when he was 24 years old The burial of Christ and nobody liked it. The young man chewed the tragedy when he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, before returning from Rome to Madrid in 1887: “I have suffered much more than you can imagine,” he tells him. He also counted in the writing that he sacrificed the conditions in which he performed best, such as color and the effects of vibrant light, to gain “sobriety and mysticism.” “For me it was new fruit, I had to control myself a lot, and that is the reason that I have spent two years always removing figures,” he concludes in his letter, which he leads with a pen drawing in which he appears crestfallen listening to the reproaches of the many characters that surround him as they look at his painting.
The cartoon had predicted what came next. He presented the work to the National Exhibition of Fine Arts (the ARCO of the 19th century) and the jury did not like it at all. The academics must have been uncomfortable with the most atheistic religious cadre of all. During his stay in Rome as a scholarship holder, between 1985 and 1987, Sorolla went round and round, drew sketches and notes, attended to the detailed study of the figures. He did what he would never do again thanks to his marvelous technique that allowed him to build in the moment and without restraint directly on the canvas those bourgeois affairs for which he was recognized throughout the world. Those who saw Sorolla work wrote about the struggle he had with an uncomfortable scene for him and what it took him to finish it.
He ended up building a sober scene in wrapping, in drama and, above all, in devotion. The Valencian painter did not behave before the greatest biblical drama neither as a pious artist nor as one fearing God. That burial of his of Christ was a sight more historical than religious and he was awarded a mere diploma that he never came to collect. And if we speak in the past tense when referring to the painting, it is because as a result of his disgust he decided to roll it up and send it to the basements of his house. They say that he smashed it into pieces with his own hands and that is how it has survived to this day, torn into four fragments that are preserved in the Sorolla Museum. Most of the composition is missing and years after the stumble, he acknowledged that his friend Pedro Gil had erased the trace of the “unfortunate painting.”
Now Luis Alberto Pérez Velarde, curator of the Sorolla Museum, has recovered it to star in the exhibition that opens this Monday, Sorolla. Torment and devotion, which is presented as a sample of an unknown facet of the most popular painter. However, what is taught as a religious theme never crossed the thresholds of manners or history in the case of Sorolla. When he enters a church, he watches how the anthropologist looks at the rite and the ceremony, he does not put himself at the service of the legend and neutralizes the sacred with an overdose of skepticism.
Everything that the critics of the painting detested was a reason for praise in Benito Pérez Galdós, who published an article that same June in La Prensa de Buenos Aires, against the wave of reproaches and appreciating what the young painter had achieved. In fact, it seemed to the novelist that Sorolla could have been even more crude and less poetic: “Perhaps there is a certain affection in the gloomy tone that the painter has given to his painting,” wrote the author of Episodios nacional. He was struck by the simplicity with which the figures are drawn and he reproaches him for having “sacrificed a little truth to originality.” Regarding the technique, he said that it was elegant and loose, “sketched to an exaggeration.” For everything, the comments against the painting seemed “unfair”, because for Galdós he deserved the first medal.
Everything that the critics of the painting detested was cause for praise in Benito Pérez Galdós, who published an article that same June in The press from Buenos Aires, against the wave of reproaches and appreciating what the young painter had achieved. In fact, it seemed to the novelist that Sorolla could have been even more crude and less poetic: “Perhaps there is a certain affection in the gloomy tone that the painter has given to his painting,” wrote the author of National episodes. He was struck by the simplicity with which the figures are drawn and he reproaches him for having “sacrificed a little truth to originality.” Regarding the technique, he said that it was elegant and loose, “sketched to an exaggeration.” For everything, the comments against the painting seemed “unfair”, because for Galdós he deserved the first medal.
Sorolla was too humane for Catholics and he only attended to these matters for a few years, because during his stay in Rome he moved to Pais with his friend Pedro Gil and found in the interest of the French market for the social reality of the most disadvantaged a reason that would hit full throttle in the 1990s. Then, with the turn of the century, he would once again alter his attentions to definitely focus on portraying the comfortable lives of his clients.
On The burial of Christ the Valencian painter refined the drama against academic taste to the maximum. Christ has his head cocked, wrapped in the shroud and with his mouth ajar. The only two characters who exaggerate their gesture when they bring themselves, one, their hands to their face and the other, when they fall on their knees. Thanks to the photograph in which we see him working in his studio in Rome, accompanied by Pedro Gil and a model, we can see how in the final version he has erased most of the characters and made the pain of the Virgin and Saint more evident. Juan more obvious. In the late afternoon, amid the mist, the muddy ground, the silence and the pain, in a landscape on the outskirts of the city. There is more atmosphere than encouragement.
The melodramatic exaggerations, the screams and the revelry were the reason for the greatest recognition of the jury of the National Exhibition of Fine Arts that year. The sack of Rome, by Francisco Javier Amérigo Aparici, is the complete opposite of Sorolla’s work: pure operetta and astrakhan, in which the author moved away from the triumphant passages of Spanish nationalist propaganda to portray how Carlos V’s troops burst into a drunken Roman church. The young Sorolla in 1887 sent an order to the Sorolla of the future and banished the biblical from his interests on a large scale. He was always a painter of reality and the earthly.