Where art and fashion meet

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Under the Awning, Zarauz (Bajo el toldo, Zarautz), 1910, oil on canvas, 99.1 x 114.3 cm., Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis.

Spanish master Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida was a keen observer of the life around him at the turn of the 20th century. He was particularly fascinated by women, whose newly expanded freedoms were reflected in the latest fashions. 

This interplay of art and fashion is the central theme of an exhibition organized by the National Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in collaboration with the Sorolla Museum, on view simultaneously at both museums.

The vision of curator Eloy Martínez de la Pera, the exhibition brings together some 70 works by the Valencian master. The works, some never publicly seen, belong to museums as well as national and international private collections. Visitors will have the opportunity to view the works of art side by side with an outstanding set of vintage dresses and accessories. The exhibition focuses particularly on portraits of women between 1890 and 1920.

Here, Mr. Martínez de la Pera reflects on what inspired this fascinating insight into the connections between the worlds of art and fashion at the turn of the 20th century.

How did you structure the exhibition?

We have divided the exhibition into four sections, reflecting Sorolla as an observer, attentive to fashion, and as a perfect chronicler of the changes that occurred in 20th century clothing. His portraits include an evocative succession of dresses, jewelry and accessories, all of which he captures in exquisite and vibrant detail.

In the first part, we see Sorolla in a more intimate way through the portraits of his family members, who were a major presence in the painter’s work. The importance of family comes through in his numerous depictions of family spaces and daily life, both in his group images and in the affectionate paintings of his children, and most of all in the beautiful and refined portraits of his muse—his wife, Clotilde.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Clotilde con traje gris (Clotilde in grey dress), 1900, oil on canvas, 178.5 x 93 cm., Museo Sorolla, Madrid

The second part presents his portraits of society. Sorolla received frequent commissions to paint portraits, not only of members of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, but of Spanish royalty as well. He also made portraits of the prominent personalities in American society he met on his travels to the United States. These paintings reflect both traditional and somewhat nostalgic fashion, as well as modernity at its most uncompromising.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, La Reina Victoria Eugenia (Victoria Eugenia, Queen of Spain), 1911, oil on canvas, 109.5 x 94.6 cm., The Hispanic Society of America, New York

The third part is called “Elegant Summer.” Here, we find the paintings of Spanish beaches and coastal areas that doctors recommended in the second half of the 19th century, and which became quite popular among the upper classes. Dresses and sophisticated accessories, such as parasols and hats, play a key role in these elegant scenes.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Clotilde en la playa (Clotilde on the beach), 1904, oil on canvas, 129 x 150 cm., Museo Sorolla, Madrid

The fourth section, called “Paris and Modern Life,” depicts the fin-de-siècle lifestyle with its new social customs and new forms of entertainment: gatherings in cafés, outdoor strolls in parks and promenades, and shows at the opera house or cabaret. In his travels to Paris, Sorolla studied the novelties taking place in women’s haute couture, which served as inspiration for many of his portraits.

Mariano Furtuny y Madrazo Vestido Delphos, hacia, 1920 Tafetán de seda y cristal de Murano Delphos dress. Silk taffeta and Murano glass) Centre de Documentació i Museu Tèxtil, Terrassa

In these four sections, the public can view all the paintings Sorolla completed between the years 1890 and 1920.

What inspired you to create an exhibition on Sorolla and fashion?

After seeing how Sorolla portrayed his daughter, Elena, with the Delphos dress, which created a fury among the most advanced women of that time, I was impressed by the master’s strength as a chronicler of the change in fashion from the 19th to the 20th centuries. Sorolla, in his portraits, reflected in a very explicit way the change in fashion and in the role of women. He portrayed women who were very sure of themselves and who possessed solid self-esteem. At the same time, we discover a Sorolla who loved life first and then fashion.

Did Sorolla anticipate the beginnings of the women’s revolution in the 20th century?

Absolutely. The women were the main subject of his paintings. They belonged to the new bourgeoisie that arose from America’s industrial revolution and from London’s fortunes. They were modern women who traveled and who knew what was happening in Paris. They were truly cosmopolitan. Sorolla discovered and loved modernity and modern life. I dare say that Sorolla is one of the best portraitists of the 20th century internationally. And with this exhibition, people will be able to discover that.

Was Sorolla a pioneer in the internalization of modern Spanish art?

Sorolla, as the cosmopolitan man he was, strengthened ties with the entire American, British and French bourgeoisie. He was an international painter, and his impact was international. That is why his work is so appreciated in all these countries. Exhibitions of Sorolla are always enormously popular. I think Sorolla has been one of the most global of the Spanish painters, and as such, has been recognized in the world’s great museums and exhibition halls.

When did you give up your career as a diplomat to devote yourself to the world of art?

Although my entire academic background is linked to high diplomacy (I specialized in consular diplomatic law and EU law), I had the opportunity at the start of the 1990s, to work in the European Union during the dismantling of the former Soviet Union. My task was to establish diplomatic ties with the new independent republics of Central Asia, the Caucuses and Mongolia. Europe did not want these new countries to lose their cultural heritage due to the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Items related to cultural heritage were one of the key elements of my work in those republics. There I realized the importance of artistic and cultural heritage when we define ourselves as a society, as a people, and as people associated with a specific environment. After this experience, I decided to start curating exhibitions related to art and fashion.

Eloy Martínez de la Pera holds a degree in Political Science and Law. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Cristobal Balenciaga Foundation, and a leading consultant in different aspects of art and fashion for museums and private institutions. He has curated and designed some of the most outstanding exhibitions in recent years.

J.P. Morgan is proud to be a corporate partner of the Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza for the sixth consecutive year. Sorolla and Fashion runs from February 13 through May 27, 2018.

To learn more about the JP Morgan Chase Art Collection and our perspectives for collectors, please visit The Collector’s Eye.

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