The shapes used in the Visual Arts can be compositional and constructional. Artists use the compositional shapes as themes driving the symphony of their work. Within that theme are the smaller pieces, the pieces that link this visual language to the real world. They hold it together, each piece working on its own but nothing without the whole.
Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) was a virtuoso at both compositional and constructional shapes. We mostly see the compositions: sweeping brushstrokes, beautiful configurations of paint, patterns of color, all gloriously joined in the love and poetry of life. But in Sorolla’s constructional shapes we find the simplicity of his solutions.
In Three studies of head, we can see Sorolla defining the grammar he will use over the journey of his artistic life. It’s no coincidence that he’s used the three major portrait views: three-quarter, profile, and direct. Each presents a different problem for Sorolla to solve. The eye socket is defined as a hexagon, with a smaller hexagon nestled inside as the eye itself. Two of the studies present the head in an octagon shape. The nose is a triangle in each study. Simple shapes, simple solutions.
Portrait of Antonio Elegido, is a simple box structure divided into the octagon. Eye structure returns as the hexagon and a triangle for the nose. Over time we can see Sorolla is simplifying the shapes.
Portrait of Antonio Elegido, 1893, Oil on canvas
Benito Perez Galdos is a wondrous poem of boxes and hexagons, each providing structure and a connection to reality. Note how much Sorolla suppresses the details, they’re not important. He’s able to say it all in the larger constructional shapes.
If we jump ahead 15 years, we see Sorolla is still seeking that simplification. In Self-Portrait, we have the hexagon in the eye, though it’s so simple that it begins to look like a square. The triangle nose and triangular face harmonize with each other and complete a new solution.
Self-Portrait, 1909, Oil on canvas
Maria with hat returns to the overall octagon shape for the face and hexagons for eyes and mouth, with more hexagons and octagons throughout the painting.
Maria with hat, 1910, Oil on canvas
Painted 4 years before the stroke that would end his ability to paint, Fisherwoman from Valencia, shows yet again how gorgeous the simplicity can be.
Fisherwoman from Valencia, 1916, Oil on canvas
It’s so wonderful to dance with his brushstrokes and to be warmed by the fire of his color, but it’s the simplicity of his solutions that make all that other magic possible. To stand before Sorolla is to embrace the logic and intelligence of Art.