In March 1911 the Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida spoke to a newspaper reporter in front of the facade of the City Art Museum, now the Saint Louis Art Museum. Surveying Art Hill, he extolled the city’s landscape and clear atmosphere: “I am astounded. I am overcome…The air is more beautiful, more clear than in Spain…That so beautiful a city as St. Louis existed in the West, I did not dream.”
Sorolla visited St. Louis for a single day, accompanied by his wife Clothilde, to oversee the installation of around 200 of his paintings at the Museum. St. Louis was the second venue of a traveling Sorolla exhibition that had first been shown in Chicago, a city the artist described, in contrast, as “always wrapped in a thick coal fog and extremely dirty.” Renowned for capturing the varied effects of sunlight in his beach scenes and landscapes, the artist would have been especially attuned to the qualities of light and air.
The Sorolla exhibition, which opened on March 22, 1911, was an unprecedented success for the City Art Museum.. It was reported that the museum drew around 7,000 visitors on a single day during the exhibition’s run. Local artists were both challenged and impressed by Sorolla’s unconventional use of vibrant color and the impressionistic quality of many of his compositions.
The City Art Museum acquired three paintings from the exhibition: Before the Bath, 1909; The Garden of the Adarves, Alhambra, Granada, 1910; and Under the Awning Zarauz, 1910. Before the Bath and The Garden of the Adarves were later deaccessioned, and are now in private collections. A 1911 article on the museum’s acquisition in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch praised Under the Awning, Zarauz, noting that the painting was “considered by many to be one of the greatest and most distinctive of the renowned artist’s productions.”
In this painting, three women in gauzy white dresses and straw hats—Sorolla’s daughters and his wife—stand in the shade of an umbrella awning on a bright day at the Zarauz beach in northern Spain. The immediacy and seeming spontaneity of the scene recall a photograph; Sorolla’s wife Clothilde, her hat covered by a green veil fluttering in the wind, strides forward, wearing white gloves and supporting herself with a cane. The artist’s younger daughter Elena, in a flowered hat, turns her face to look at her older sister, María, who, surveys the coast through a pair of binoculars. Behind the women stretches a sandy beach sparsely populated by families dressed in white, sitting or strolling leisurely along the water’s edge.
A large proportion of Sorolla’s prolific output consisted of beach scenes, including candid paintings of lower-class children and laborers at work on the beaches of his native city, Valencia, on Spain’s eastern coast. Set instead on the northern coast of Spain at Zarauz, a summer destination for Spanish high society, Under the Awning allowed Sorolla to capture the fashionable leisure activities in which his own family took part.
Molly Moog is a research assistant at the Saint Louis Art Museum, focusing on modern and contemporary art.