MADRID, SPAIN. Think of Joaquín Sorolla, the Valencian painter whose artistic talent and ability to diversify his style and genre made him renowned across the world, and images of light, sunshine and nature will come to your mind. Most striking are his beach scenes, such as Paseo a orillas del mar (1909), in which light and nature take centre stage. However, critical opinions are split over a final stage in a career that saw him travel, paint and exhibit across Europe and America.

In November 1911, at the crowning of his popularity in America after a series of recent successful exhibitions, Sorolla signed a contract to complete a commission for the Hispanic Society of America. Fourteen oil on canvas murals of huge proportions displaying traditional Spanish scenes were provided to decorate the Society’s building. This series, entitledVision of Spain, was Sorolla’s final major series of works and took eight years to complete; shortly after completion he suffered a stroke and never painted again.

The stressful and uncomfortable nature of carrying out this work has been criticised by many experts. This immense undertaking undoubtedly had a negative effect on his health, as Doña Consuelo Luca de Tena Navarro, the director of the Sorolla Museum in Madrid, describes: “Without a doubt it did. Travelling around Spain nowadays is one thing, but in his time it was something else. It was a tremendous physical effort. He was an extremely hardworking man; today we would call him a workaholic. But he couldn’t imagine doing anything other than painting.”

Others say he accepted it merely for financial reasons. It lacked his natural focus on light and ‘luminism’, and possibly his enthusiasm as well. “He painted this for ten years and yes, he did tire of it. Clearly when he painted for himself without the obligation of the commission, he painted differently: more relaxed and faster”, continues Consuelo Luca de Tena Navarro. “He loved to make money. He came from a simple and modest family. He enjoyed his fame and wealth, and spent his money gladly. But was his sole motive financial? I don’t think so, no. As an artist, to have a commission of such magnitude is obviously very eulogistic.”

However, this commission could be considered as a prime example of Sorolla’s unparalleled ability to branch out and to turn his hand to new genres. He was certainly no trained muralist and this commission put his remarkable talent to the test. “There was certainly an element of challenge, to try to do something different”, states Navarro. Instead of hindering his career and compromising his development as an artist, his undertaking of such a project can be viewed as a positive step for his career as it enabled him to earn in order to travel and complete independent works, to increase his popularity and status at the time, and to show off his artistic talents and his ability to adapt to new styles and techniques. Navarro agrees with this idea, adding “I don’t believe that it was artistically detrimental. I think that as a work of art it is extraordinary: the power of the compositions, the amount of characters he handles and the variety of the scenes. They create an extraordinary work of art. I do not believe that Sorolla wasted his talent.”

Sorolla never saw his ‘Vision of Spain’ murals exhibited in situ. The murals, which have been on display in New York for the best part of eight decades, have attracted millions of visitors, including many who saw the work on its successful tour around Spain which ended in 2010. Critics will always have differing opinions on the subject, but Navarro eloquently concludes, “There were times where he felt stranded by the commission, but there were also some very passionate moments of painting. In letters to his wife, Sorolla speaks of a pleasure so intense from his painting that it is almost physically unbearable!”

A wonderful selection of his works are available to view at the Sorolla Museum in Madrid, situated in the house where he spent many years deriving pleasure from creating his masterpieces, for you to share in his pleasure of art and painting.