Boys on the Beach1909. Oil on canvas, 118 x 185 cm.
The series of paintings featuring the ‘children in the water’ motif culminates in this work, in which nude boys play a greater part in the composition than in other pictures by Sorolla. While it is signed in 1910 and this chronology has been followed by almost everyone, the artist must have painted it in the summer of 1909, as the image was already reproduced in a book by Rafael Doménech the colophon of which states that it was printed on 19 December 1909. The work would thus coincide with Sorolla’s long and fruitful three-month stay in Valencia between late June and late September. During those months he painted various masterworks, including The Horse’s Bath. Both paintings reveal an essential Mediterranean fascination that the painter sought to emphasise with frames bearing Tuscan pilasters and smooth entablatures. The motif of nude children lying freely in the sun had already interested Mariano Fortuny and Ignacio Pinazo, as well as Sargent, all three artists appreciated by Sorolla. Like Fortuny, Sorolla approached the subject at the sea’s edge, very much in the foreground and without any horizon. Unlike the former painter, though, Sorolla showed an interest in the movement of the water, which he turned into a purely pictorial motif, along with the light reflecting off the sea and the boys’ bodies, their reflection in the water and the coloured shadows cast onto the wet surface. The painter had dealt with this subject in other works related to the one at the Prado by the presence of nude children lying in the foreground. As early as 1903 he painted Children on the Seashore, but this composition shows younger children, making the figures in the present picture more akin to the nude youths that appear in various works from 1908, including Sea Idyll, Idyll on the Sand, and Boys on the Beach as well as the reclining nudes in two works with broader compositions, one in the Hispanic Society and the other in a private collection. There are also various drawings of children in horizontal poses which are thought to have served as preparatory studies for this painting, but which cannot be specifically related to it. Additionally, in 1916 the artist painted another picture called Children on the Beach, Valencia, with a nude lying on the sea’s edge. Despite the size of this canvas, the artist painted it from the life. All the same, he managed to set the scene without any previous studies, achieving not only a feeling of immediate veracity but also a composition that perfectly balances the static posture of the bodies and the dynamism of their relative placement. Indeed, the scene shows the boy with his head most raised in the foreground. His diagonal position draws the viewer into the canvas and his turned face carries our gaze back to the second boy until it comes to rest on the abandoned posture of the third one, who lies parallel to the canvas’s upper edge. The gradually increasing degree of relaxation in the boys’ postures according to their distance from the viewer is paralleled by a growing chromatic intensity in their bodies, from the white flesh with mauve reflections of the nearest boy, with blond hair and lighter skin, to the reddish-bronze of the one in the background, passing through the tanned shades of the second, with brown hair. The highlights indicate the growing intensity with which the sun shines on the bodies being gradually submerged in the water. Thus, on the closest and driest boy the highlights are rendered with matte white impastos; on the second, who is partially submerged, they are more intense and lighter; and on the boy in the background, who is already soaked and completely shiny, they become very luminous. The artist also captures the movement of the water around their bodies, using very broad brushstrokes with turquoise, blue, violet and mauve tones, just as he had done in earlier works featuring swimmers, especially in his Jávea cycle from 1905. As in Sea Idyll, he also reflects the small hollow that the undertow creates near the feet of the central figure. Of special interest is the double silhouette cast by the figures of the first two boys (it is less visible in the third one). Their lower silhouettes correspond to their reflections on the water, while the ones directly below their bodies are their shadows, coloured in a shade of violet, which the artist observed under Valencia’s intense midday sun. (Barón, J.: Joaquín Sorolla. Museo Nacional del Prado, 2009, pp. 406-409).