The Actress, María Guerrero as La Dama Boba1906. Oil on canvas, 131 x 120.5 cm.
This portrait of María Guerrero, Sorolla’s neighbour and friend, is probably the finest and most expressive example of the eminent actress’s lifelong obsession with her own image. From childhood, she had herself portrayed by some of the most famous painters of her time, many of whom were friends of her father, the set designer Ramón Guerrero. María Guerrero grew up in a cultured and erudite family environment that included tuition in languages and elocution, and this intellectual ambience, sensitive to the world of painting, was to stimulate the actress’s desire to immortalise her image in some of her most renowned stage roles over the different phases of her career. The Málaga- born painter José Vallejo (1821–1882) and the Valencian Emilio Sala (1850–1910) both painted her when she was still a girl, and Raimundo de Madrazo portrayed her in 1897 in the role of Doña Inés in Don Juan Tenorio. Towards the end of her life, she was pictured again by other renowned artists such as Anselmo Miguel Nieto (1881–1964), Daniel Vázquez Díaz (1882–1969) and Ricardo Baroja (1871–1953). María Guerrero posed for Sorolla at the height of her fame as the greatest Spanish actress of her day. This superb portrait shows her in the role of Finea, the protagonist of La Dama Boba (Lady Nitwit), Lope de Vega’s immortal comedy of 1613. The character became one of the actress’s emblematic roles, bringing her resounding success in both Spain and Argentina. María Guerrero was twenty-nine when she was painted by Madrazo in her role as Doña Inés in Don Juan Tenorio. That same year, Sorolla produced an early version of the present portrait in a smaller format (110 x 135 cm), subsequently showing it in 1897 at the National Fine Arts Exhibition in Madrid. Nine years later, the artist completely repainted the original canvas, enlarging it to the almost square format we see today, very commonly used by Sorolla in portraits of this period. Adding clearly visible horizontal strips to the top and bottom, he produced a painting whose dazzling quality far surpasses the earlier version, known from a photograph. María Guerrero was younger in the first painting, where she appeared seated with a serious expression. Forming a background behind her figure and the back of the friar’s chair was an imprecisely rendered drawing-room with a high panelled skirting board. Sorolla completely repainted both the actress’s face and her striking dress, substantially enlarging the farthingale, and also transformed the background into the interior of a room where her husband now appeared. Seated and holding a book in his hands, he is in the guise of Rufino, Finea’s teacher. Sorolla also painted the date, 1906, over the earlier one of 1897, which appeared in the inscription in the upper left-hand corner, next to the actress’s coat-of-arms. Since this depiction of María Guerrero involved representing the fashions of the reign of Philip IV, Sorolla once more had an opportunity to pay a personal tribute to Velázquez. Demonstrating how thoroughly he had assimilated the Sevillian master’s techniques, he applied them in his own masterly treatment of the costume, a display of extraordinary chromatic richness on the basis of pinks, carmines and whites which immediately recalls the portrait of The Infanta Margarita de Austria. Sorolla thus renders the costume with absolute freedom, employing a vibrantly carefree line and infusing the material with an astonishing fullness of texture that anticipates modern art. Such features belong to the Valencian master’s most rewarding period as a portraitist, and the expressive intensity of the great actress’s characteristic face, whose dramatic force brought such renown to this grande dame of the Spanish stage, is fully and vibrantly captured in this painting. What is more, the portrait is also the most eloquent testimony to the crucial importance of Sorolla’s discovery of Velázquez’s painting at the Prado, and of the admiration he felt for it. Especially revealing in this respect are the artist’s own words, which clearly express his special intentions for this work: ‘I asked María to let me do this portrait of her, which is intended to hang at the Prado. For that is what I tell María: “You ought to be in the Museum, and it is fitting that you should be painted by me, and that this should be one of the paintings of mine that remain there." No wonder, then, that Sorolla should have tried to distil the very best of his art in a portrait which he longed to see hanging alongside the ‘master among masters,’ whose work he was attempting to emulate, on the walls of the Prado. His wish was eventually to come true. María Guerrero’s close friendship with Joaquín Sorolla was intensified still further when they became neighbours after the construction of his last house, now the Museo Sorolla. The actress used to supply the artist with costumes from her wardrobe for some of his portraits, as Sorolla himself remarked in a letter to his wife Clotilde dating from the first half of 1907: ‘I arrived home before the servants, dined on whatever was at hand, and went to visit María Guerrero, to see if she had a costume I need for one of the portraits for America. She said she would take care of it and sent fond remembrances to you all.’ Once he had settled in his new residence, he asked permission from the actress to allow light into his study through a window opening onto her property. He wrote to his wife: ‘I am happy that María—La Guerrero, that is—has allowed me to open the window onto her garden, as it means I have been saved for the time being.’ In a photograph accompanying the actress’s obituary in La Esfera in 1928, María Guerrero appears wearing this very costume, with minimal variations. The actress retained an arrangement similar to the one in the portrait throughout the successive versions of the costume used by her for the part. ( Díez J.L., Joaquín Sorolla, Madrid: Museo del Prado, 2009, pp 355-358)