National Gallery buys 'dazzling' Joaquín Sorolla painting

Acquisition by London gallery comes after its 2019 exhibition of Spanish artist’s work

The National Gallery has acquired its first painting by the Spanish impressionist Joaquín Sorolla, a huge name in his day who was once audaciously described as “the world’s greatest living painter”.

The gallery announced it had purchased The Drunkard, Zarauz (1910), a dark and dramatic portrayal of alcoholism with the central figure staring boozily through watery eyes directly out to the viewer.

The acquisition follows the success of the gallery’s Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light exhibition in 2019, which was visited by more than 167,000 people.

The National Gallery director, Gabriele Finaldi, said it was pleasing to welcome the first Sorolla work in to the collection. “New pictures help to expand our understanding of the European painting tradition and enrich the story the gallery tells, so we are delighted that this extraordinary picture now belongs to everyone, including future generations.

“The subject of a drunkard in a Basque tavern is perhaps untypical of the artist but the virtuosity of his brushstroke and the confident, sketch-like handling reveal him at his dazzling best.”

Last year’s display was the first Sorolla exhibition in the UK for more than a century. It was the previous one, in 1908 in London’s Grafton Galleries, for which he was advertised as “the world’s greatest living painter”.

The newly acquired painting is a large-scale sketch which Sorolla executed quickly in situ as he trawled the taverns of Zarauz in the Basque country, where he and his family spent the summer of 1910.

The gallery said it was significant that the artist never worked up a finished tavern scene, suggesting he was after that fleeting sense of immediacy. Sorolla was evidently pleased with the painting as he included it in his second large US retrospective exhibition, at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1911.

Christopher Riopelle, the curator of post-1800 paintings, said that around the time The Drunkard was painted, Sorolla was contemplating the commission for a monumental cycle on the people and customs of his homeland, Vision of Spain at the Hispanic Society of America in New York.

“As if in preparation, with this deeply human painting he returned to his engagement with the Spanish peasant and, perhaps as important, to making brilliant use once more of the indispensable Spanish colour – black.”

The £325,000 purchase has been made possible thanks to a legacy left by the architect David Medd, regarded as the world’s most influential creator of primary schools, who died in 2009.

When the National Gallery reopens, expected to be in July or August, the painting will go on display in room 41 with contemporary paintings from across Europe and the US. In the meantime it can be enjoyed on the gallery’s website.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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