And They Still Say Fish are Expensive!1894. Oil on canvas, 151.5 x 204 cm.
This emblematic picture is undoubtedly the best-known work on a social theme produced by Sorolla in his youth. It is also an especially good example of how fully the artist became involved in a genre which, at the time, was of particular relevance in Madrid’s official artistic circles, where Sorolla was determined to receive his first public recognition. The depth of its meaning is probably indicative of how close it was to the artist’s heart: the painting represents a sensitive issue in his native Valencia in what must be one of the most moving scenes in turn-of-the-century Spanish social realism. After the success of Another Marguerite! in 1892, Sorolla repeated his achievement winning another first class medal at the 1895 National Exhibition, to which he submitted this painting along with thirteen others, mostly portraits. And They still say Fish is Expensive! shows a scene inside the hold of a fishing boat, where a young sailor, barely a boy, is lying on the ground after an accident at sea. On his naked torso hangs a medallion, a protective amulet to guard fishermen against misfortune. The young man is treated for his injuries by two old fishing companions, both with serious concentration on their faces. One holds him by the shoulders, whilst the other, wearing a traditional Catalan cap, applies a compress to the wound, which he has just wet in the pot of water in the foreground. The three sailors are surrounded by fishing tackle, whilst in the background is a pile of fish, caught during this unfortunate day’s work. As in many youthful works of similar nature and intent, Sorolla continues to be constrained here by the formal rigours of naturalism in its strictest sense. The drawing is still firm and descriptive, and the figures are particularly clearly defined. Only in the scene around them does the artist adopt a freer approach. Nevertheless, the interpretation of the subject matter, the highly balanced composition and the bold spatial dynamics give this painting a special integral harmony. With total naturalness, Sorolla has incorporated into his canvas some of the more innovative plastic devices he was to use in his subsequent works. The beholder is first struck by the silent, restrained fortitude of the two old seadogs as they care for the delicate, helpless body of the injured youth. The scene has all the dramatic solemnity of a profane pietà, imbued with a noble, manly poise which Sorolla alone was able to draw from the souls of Valencia’s fishermen. Moreover, the way the artist captures the light shining in through the boat’s hatch, bathing the hold and its contents in a clear halflight reveals the extent of Sorolla’s achievement in comparison to his handling of light in earlier genre works. The bold modern approach to framing sharply shifts the perspective of the hold to one side, emphasising the spatial impression of the setting and revealing the ladder down which the fishermen have brought the injured youth. This adds a depth to the composition that is rounded off by a mound of glinting silver fish, piled up in the background. The serene, deeply-felt emotion with which Sorolla interprets his fishermen stands in contrast to other major paintings featuring similar scenes and characters, such as Eating on the Boat, painted four years later. Though similar in size, the approach is radically different, with the artist by that stage wholly immersed in the true-to-life costumbrismo so typical of his seafaring scenes. Although Pantorba claims the picture was painted in Valencia in the summer of 1894, Sorolla must in fact have started it several months before, for in a letter to his friend Pedro Gil dated earlier that year, he announces: ‘I am finishing off my picture for the Salon. It is large in size, although no bigger than two metres, and is a scene with fishermen inside a fishing boat.’ He also refers to the large size of the figures in proportion to the canvas, which increases the grave monumentality of the composition and the emphatic protagonist role of its characters. The theme and title of the picture are inspired by the final passage from the novel The Mayflower which Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (1867– 1928) was writing at the same time that his fellow Valencian was painting this picture, and was published in 1895. The novel describes the wretched lives of fishermen and ends with the story of an accident suffered by a team of mariners on the high seas and the rescue of the dead body of one of them which is taken into the belly of the wrecked boat. Reviews of this renowned painting, which in its day even inspired passionate poems in tribute to its author, have been virtually unanimous in their praise. In the same year, the picture went on public display in Madrid. The Museo Sorolla has two oil sketches which the artist presumably produced in preparation for this great painting. One, Boat Hold, Valencia depicts equipment inside a barge, while the other, Boat Interior, outlines the boat scene that appears in the final canvas. The second of these depicts the base of the main mast and the beam of light shining in through the open hatch on deck and offers the same field of view. The picture can be seen unframed on an easel in a photograph of Sorolla’s studio on Plaza del Progreso in Madrid. The print probably dates from 1894, before the canvas was awarded the first prize at the National Exhibition the following year and was purchased by the Spanish State. From Paris, Sorolla was to notify his wife of the award in a letter dated 15 June 1895: ‘I imagine you will have already learned that in Madrid I won the first prize for the picture And They still say Fish is Expensive.’ (Díez, J. L.: Joaquín Sorolla. Museo Nacional del Prado, 2009, pp. 230-232).