Five drinkers gather in a tavern in Zarauz, the Basque coastal town where Joaquín Sorolla spent the summer of 1910. One stares at the artist through watery eyes while another pushes cider towards him, egging on the inebriate to further excess. A third glances menacingly at the painter. The canvas edges cut off two further figures, as in an awkward amateur snapshot. This large-scale, improvisatory sketch is one of six tavern scenes Sorolla painted that summer.
It marks a turning point in his career as, for the first time in ten years, Sorolla depicted peasants in the sometimes harsh reality of their lives. He also returned to the distinctively Spanish blacks, greys and browns of Velázquez’s and Goya’s palettes, sparingly used for a decade. Here, Sorolla created one of his saddest works: a depiction of mockery, cruelty and addiction at the lower depths and a bravura exercise in compassionate observation.
Five drinkers gather in the shadowy depths of a tavern in Zarauz, the Basque coastal town where the Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla spent the summer of 1910. One, more drunk than the others, stares through watery eyes at the artist. Sorolla understood the man’s name to be Moscorra but, as the word means drunkard in the Basque language, he may have misunderstood something the locals told him. To Moscorra’s right a man pushes a glass of cider towards him, egging on the inebriate to further excess. A younger man throws a threatening glance towards the painter so that cruel fun is heightened by suspicion and menace.
The painting is a large-scale, improvisatory and rapidly executed sketch. Paint is applied in relatively thin layers while light and shadow are precisely evoked with bold sweeps of the brush. The canvas edges abruptly cut off two figures at upper left and right; adept in photographic technique from youth, Sorolla here exploits the haphazard spontaneity of an amateur’s awkward snapshot. This is one of a half dozen such impromptu tavern scenes he painted that summer, several featuring Moscorra, as Sorolla confronted the problem of alcoholism among the Spanish underclasses, and the baleful role taverns played in their lives. Particularly satisfied with it, Sorolla chose to include The Drunkard in his second major American exhibition, at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1911.
The picture marks a turning point in Sorolla’s career. For the first time in ten years he again took up a dark theme. Throughout the previous decade he had depicted carefree urchins and elegant, carefree women and children of the upper middle class on sun-dappled beaches; such beguiling images had served to establish his international fame and considerable fortune. Around 1910, however, Archer Milton Huntington, the founder of the Hispanic Society of America, offered Sorolla the commission to paint a monumental cycle on the peoples and customs of the artist’s homeland. Vision of Spain would be installed in the Society’s New York headquarters in 1926, four years after Sorolla’s death.
Vision of Spain presented a dual challenge. Sorolla would need to depict peasants in the sometimes grim reality of their lives and, speaking to an international audience, he was called on to exploit signifiers of Spanish art he had used only sparingly in the past decade, not least the blacks, greys and browns of Velazquez’s and Goya’s palettes. The Drunkard shows the artist with a new sense of purpose gearing up to take on the challenges his commission posed. He identified a theme representative of Basque peasant life. He entered wholeheartedly into the troubled world of Moscorra where he and the drunkard exchange direct gazes. He set himself a complicated visual and psychological challenge to paint quickly, in low light, and to capture unsparingly the fetid air of a peasant dive. Here, Sorolla created one of his saddest works: a penetrating assessment of mockery, cruelty and addiction at the lower depths which is at the same time a bravura exercise in passionate and compassionate observation.
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