CMA Garden Exhibit Review: Did He Really Paint in the Garden in His Summer Whites?

by Elsa Johnson


Wednesday I went back to the garden exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art for the third time. I like just wandering through, letting my eyes pull me to what attracts them….and every time it is when I come to the ‘international’ second half of the show, that the picture of Louis Comfort Tiffany by Joaquin Sorolla, reaches out, grabs me, and stops me in my tracks. There Louis Comfort Tiffany sits, handsome,  posed in front of his easel, brush in hand, reaching out in the act of touching paint to canvas, in his summer whites, surrounded by symphonies of flowers, a glimpse of the Long Island shore and a bit of blue sea or sound over his right shoulder. 

Wait. Back up. Did I say summer whites? I did.

These are not just any summer whites (did he really paint in his summer whites?) … no – these are dazzling summer whites, vibrating summer whites, summer whites made up of deft touches of many colors — never too much; always just enough – an intricate game of using dabs of color in folds and shadows to make what is hit by sunlight highlighted, heightened, and even brighter, making this sun drenched 1911 portrait of Tiffany so much more than just a portrait. Despite all the flowers surrounding him and Tiffany’s own pleasant face, it is the subtle unsubtle suit that keeps drawing one’s eyes back. 

Both Sorolla and Tiffany were immensely talented and hard-working and both achieved great success. One feels – or imagines – that between the artist Sorolla and his subject, Tiffany,  also an artist, that there is an ongoing conversation comprised of an intimacy of understanding the job, and shared humor at the joke (surely they didn’t paint in their summer whites). As we look at the painting, we are standing where Sorolla stood. That vibratingly white, light obsessed suit is the medium of discourse.

There are two other paintings by Sorolla on either side of the Louis Comfort Tiffany picture. Both, pictures of Sorolla’s home in Spain, are also light-filled, but it is a softer light, more diffused, luminous and shimmery, and the handling of the paint and thus the effect so different from Monet’s more visceral application — and this exhibit is really, when all is said and done, about Monet. But, still, it can be very nice to stray from the main course.

Should you find yourself as the result of the exhibit — or this small tidbit — interested in the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla, you can go to www.joaquin-sorolla-y-bastida where you will find a biography and a file of more than 300 images of this very prolific artist’s work. (I mean, really – would you paint in your summer whites?)