Joaquín Sorolla and Fashion in Madrid’s Museums

From February 13 to May 27 (2018), the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Museo Sorolla in Madrid presented the special exhibit, “Sorolla y la Moda” / “Sorolla and Fashion.” I was especially excited to see this particular special exhibit advertised when I walked by the Thyssen during my first few days in Madrid, as I have been working on issues pertaining to “Fashion as Art” in the early 20th century since I attended a conference on the representations of fashion in Hispanic Literature (April 2017) and then subsequently published an article on Fashion and Ekphrasis in the Avant-Garde Novel. I visited the Thyssen last week on “Día de los museos,” or International Museum Day (May 18), and I ventured up to the Museo Sorolla on a Saturday afternoon to see the other half of this joint exhibit. This will probably be on of my least “academic” posts, as I mainly want to share some of the beautiful images from the exhibits and a few observations I had after learning more about Sorolla and the the presence of fashion in his work. Plus, it is technically summer vacation… right?


Entrance to the special exhibit at the Thyssen. Image mine.

According to the materials prepared by the Thyssen and Museo Sorolla, the ubiquity of fashion is a distinctive characteristic in the paintings of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923), who is most renowned for his portraits and landscapes. Sorolla was a careful observer of fashion trends and essentially chronicled the changing styles of the fin-de-siècle and early twentieth-century eras. As this exhibit aimed to demonstrate, in his portraits he not only captures the intricate artistic details of dresses, jewelry, and accessories, but also the historical and cultural “mood” that these items convey. His wife, Clotilde, was his preferred model, as were his 2 daughters and his son. The exhibit at the Museo Sorolla contained excerpts of letters he had written to Clotilde when traveling abroad, requesting measurements so that he could bring back uniquely fashionable dresses and accessories for her and their daughters. The below images are both portraits of Clotilde. In the first, from the Thyssen exhibit, Clotilde’s portrait is accompanied by a photograph of Sorolla painting her in his studio, and also a black evening gown from the early 1900s, which doesn’t appear in my photo.


Painting: Clotilde con traje negro (Clotilde in a black dress), 1906. Photograph: Sorolla painting ‘Clotilde in a black dress’ in his studio (1906). Image mine, from the Thyssen special exhibit, May 2018.


Clotilde sentada en un sofá (Clotilde seated on a sofa), 1910. Dress by Jeanne Paquin, circa 1912. Image mine, from special exhibit at the Museo Sorolla, May 2018.

As one of the most popular painters of his era, Sorolla painted numerous portraits of early 20th century aristocracy and high society. In commissioned portraits, women typically posed in their best dresses, given that their wardrobe was key in communicating their elegance and status. The growth of cities and “modern lifestyles” created social customs and forms of entertainment that fostered a new concern with public visibility – especially for women – when attending the theater, cabaret, or opera; conversing in outdoor cafes; or strolling the wide boulevards and carefully designed city parks. As such, Sorolla paid close attention to the artistic and creative aspect of women’s clothing design and production, and he captures these details in his portraits though a distinctive and innovative form of subtle impressionism, combined with elements of classical, realist painting that point to the influence of Spanish master Diego de Velázquez. Below are a few images from the special exhibit at the Thyssen, in which aristocratic women pose in their finest attire for their commissioned portraits.














The next image is a portrait of Sorolla’s youngest daughter, Elena, when she was about 25 years old. The pleated silk Delphos gown juxtaposed with this particular painting was a style first created around 1907 by French clothing designer Henriette Negrin and her husband, the Spanish-born Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. Inspired by the clothing of ancient Greece (the chiton), the pleated “Delphos” became one of Fortuny’s most famous garments, and it was one of the first pieces of “high fashion” to become valued for its artistic and aesthetic qualities. Much of what I read about the Delphos connects to what I wrote about in my article on Fashion and Art as is appears in Carmen de Burgos’s novel, La mujer fantastica – rather than characterize the protagonist as “frivolous” for her obsession with fashionable trends, I argue that Burgos uses art to demonstrate that women’s fashion indeed has a long tradition of high aesthetic value. Of course… one of the problems is that it has been valued as art mainly when produced by male designers or immortalized by male painters. But that’s another post entirely…!


Painting: Elena con tunica amarilla (Elena in a yellow tunic), 1909. Dress: Vestido Delphos (Delphos gown), by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, circa 1920. Image mine, from special exhibit at the Museo Thyssen, May 2018.

Upon seeing this Delphos dress and the accompanying portrait of Sorolla’s daughter Elena, I couldn’t help thinking about one particular episode of the Spanish period drama El tiempo entre costuras (translated to English as The Time in Between or The Seamstress, and based on the popular novel by Maria Dueñas), in which the protagonist works to create a variation of the “Vestido-Delphos” for her client to wear to an important political event. The difficulty of reproducing a Delphos gown, as well as the prestige associated with wearing distinctive and artistic pieces of clothing in the 1920s, are captured well in the show’s scenes (below).

You can watch El tiempo entre costuras on Netflix, which I highly recommend if you’re in the market for about 12 hours of escapist, melodramatic television featuring beautiful 1920s-1940s costumes, gorgeous scenery of Morocco and Spain, and an occasionally cheesy or unpredictable storyline that will remind you of Downton Abbey in its ability to keep you hooked on what will happen next. Perfect summer binge-watching material…

In any case, returning to the Sorolla and Fashion exhibits, I’ll end with a few pictures of  my favorite room from the Museo Sorolla. This room contained numerous paintings of Valencian shorelines and Spanish vacationers – including the Sorolla familly. These light, impressionistic beach paintings are largely responsible for establishing Sorolla’s fame as the “master of light” in painting.  I particularly appropriated the dark but brilliant red walls in the studio rooms of the Museum, which served as the perfect backdrop not only for nearly every Sorolla painting regardless of its tone or theme, but also for the late 19th-century furniture and decor the fills each room.


A room in the Museo Sorolla, Madrid,  the studio and home of the artist and his family. Image mine.


Details of a summer dress from the 1910-20s in the Museo Sorolla, Madrid. Image mine.


Summer dresses and parasol at the Museo Sorolla, Madrid. Image mine.

I highly recommend a visit to the Museo Sorolla if you’d like something a bit different to do in Madrid. It’s just outside of the main tourist areas of the centro and, at only 3 euros (or free after 2:00 pm on Saturdays), it’s an inexpensive way to spend an hour or two in the peaceful gardens and carefully decorated rooms of a 19th-century Spanish home.


Museo Sorolla website

Mueso Thyssen website

Maria Duenas’ 2009 best-seller, El tiempo entre costuras and the English translation, The Seamstress via Amazon.

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
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4 Responses to Joaquín Sorolla and Fashion in Madrid’s Museums

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