Painted on the beach at Valencia in the summer of 1909, Sorolla's Antes del baño ranks as one of the most sublime subjects that Sorolla ever committed to canvas.\n\nThe work depicts a young local girl putting up her hair before swimming. Sheltering her naked body from the afternoon sun and sitting on a ledge that juts out from the side of a bathing machine, the inner calm of the girl's stolen moment is animated by the bright natural light that glances off the billowing sail hanging out to dry behind her, and the sparkling water stretching forth beyond. The minimal features of figure, drape, and backdrop and the elevated vantage point of the observer, express a striking freshness of approach in Sorolla's work. It shows the painter working at the height of his powers, the sum of the past decade spent honing his technique, researching his sources and refining his subject matter.\n\nSorolla’s ability to capture the spontaneity of children on the beach under the brilliant sunshine of his native Valencia had established his reputation. His virtuosity in this field had been first acknowledged in his major painting of 1899, Triste Herencia (Sad Inheritance; fig. 1). Exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, Sorolla was awarded the Grand Prix for the work, as well as one of twenty medals of honour. In the years that followed Sorolla returned again and again to the theme of children bathing.\n\nThe artist’s interest in this motif stemmed in part from the pride he took in his own young family. Orphaned in infancy himself, Sorolla attached immense importance to the well-being of his children María, Joaquín and Elena, born in 1890, 1892, and 1895 respectively. But in developing this subject matter Sorolla always looked for new methods of interpretation. He drew extensively on his academic training, his familiarity with French painting of the period and contemporary developments in photography and design, influences that reach their apogee in Antes del baño.\n\nUnderpinning all of Sorolla’s work lay the fine art schooling that he had received as a student. Initially this had taken place in Valencia at the Escuela de San Carlos, which he entered in 1881, and continued in the Spanish Academy in Rome to which he was awarded a scholarship in 1884. In both places his studies were rigorously academic, tuition based on copying both the Antique and the Renaissance Masters. His formal studies were reinforced by trips to the Prado when he visited Madrid in 1881 and 1882 and a summer in Paris in 1885. Sorolla drew upon this experience time and again in his work. As photographs of his studio document and a visit to the Museo Sorolla in Madrid attests to this day, Sorolla retained a number of different plaster casts from antique models in his collection, including the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. This debt to the Antique is evident in the nude sculptural form of the young girl in Antes del baño. In turn Sorolla suggests the influence of the Spanish Old Master painter José de Ribera in the dramatic use of the white sail hanging out to dry.\n\nAs well as his appreciation for works from Antiquity and the Renaissance, Sorolla was keenly attracted to Paris and developments in French painting of the period. On his first visit to Paris in 1885 he admired the posthumous exhibition of the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage. Ten years later his seminal painting La vuelta de la pesca (The Return from Fishing) won a medal at the Paris Salon of 1895, and was purchased by the French Government to hang in the Palais du Luxembourg (fig. 2). Thereafter he exhibited virtually every year at the Paris Salon. Significantly, it was in Paris that he held his first one-man exhibition, at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1906. Such strong links with the French capital brought Sorolla into contact with many of the most influential artists of the day, including fellow Francophiles Anders Zorn, and John Singer Sargent. Moreover, many of the painters who had defined the modern movement a generation before were not only very much still alive, but still producing and exhibiting new work, amongst them Claude Monet and Edgar Degas.\n\nThe influence of the work of both artists is at large in Antes del baño: Monet in the iridescent water; Degas in the pose and expression of the young girl. Records available do not confirm whether Sorolla and Monet actually met, although it is perfectly possible that they did make each other’s acquaintance. Sorolla’s painting, however, had certainly impressed the Frenchman. Seeing the Spaniard’s work for the first time in Paris in 1900, he hailed Sorolla as ‘…the champion of light’ (‘un joyeux de la lumière surtout’). For his part Sorolla looked to Monet for the majestic confidence of his paint handling, his ability to fill his canvases with sun, and his talent for describing atmosphere (fig 3). Antes del baño captures these qualities to the full, notably in the sea above the girl’s head in which a lone bather frolics. This triangle of canvas is a rich mix of hues: purples, violets, ultra-marines and turquoise that Sorolla applied separately but which blend on the canvas to express the warmth and drama of the Mediterranean water. As for Sorolla’s meeting Degas, this seems less likely given Degas’ conservative nature and retiring personality. Sorolla, however, would have been well acquainted with Degas’ work, a familiarity borne out in the pose and demeanour of the young girl in Antes del baño. The action of the young girl tying back her hair was a subject that Degas depicted again and again in his observations both of the ballet and of women bathing (fig. 4).\n\nImplicit in much of Degas’ depiction of Parisian life is the lowly social standing of his subjects. In contrast, although Sorolla often returned to the Spanish gypsy type throughout his life, in his depiction of children he was more likely to emphasise their health and happiness than consider their tenuous position in society. Typically the complexions of the children that Sorolla painted tended to be fair, their skin clear, features that suggest a solid bourgeois upbringing. Often depicted in groups, Sorolla's children usually exude a sense of cheerful well-being. They are clearly having fun (fig. 5). In Antes del baño, however, Sorolla draws upon Degas’ urban urchin model. The isolation of the girl within the composition implies her social disadvantage; her ruddy facial colouring, dark eyes and gamin good looks suggest her gypsy status. But the combination of her utterly beguiling glance and the sense of introspectve innocence that the girl exudes gives the work immense power and poignancy. Unlike so many of the other children that Sorolla painted playing on the beach, this girl clearly has a story to tell.\n\nYet the figure and format of Antes del baño is not simply the transposition of one of Degas’ rats of the Paris ballet to Valencia. Sorolla also drew heavily upon two other paintings that he completed in Valencia in 1909: Niña saliendo del baño (fig. 6) and Antes del baño, playa de Valencia (fig. 7). Both smaller, more loosely painted and less ambitious works, in the composition of Niña saliendo del baño Sorolla maps out the structure of the present work: the billowing sail, the side of the bathing machine, water all around. Only the pose of the young girl is significantly different. In turn, in Antes del baño, playa de Valencia depicting two girls, the girl on the left strikes precisely the same seated pose as the young girl in the present work.\n\nSorolla’s incorporation of elements from these two smaller works into Antes del baño clearly illustrates the importance he attached to his conscious selecting and perfecting of component parts for his major works, and the interest he took in composition. One element of this was his development of the raised horizon line, to the point - as in the present work – where there is no horizon. Thus, rather than academic tradition or the natural landscape dictating the parameters of the composition, Sorolla selected the elements that would best frame the subject before him, and reduced or enlarged the central image accordingly to fit. Sorolla had been using this compositional technique for some time, often with striking results, as in his portrait of Elena at Biarritz of 1906 in which the figure is positioned off centre and the sea laps tantalisingly at the top edge of the stretcher (fig. 8).\n\nSuch innovation certainly owed a debt to developments in photography, and the increasingly common use of the camera outdoors, beyond the confines of the studio. Sorolla acknowledges this with playful irony in his appropriately titled painting Instantánea of 1906 (fig. 9). In it he depicts a ravishing female model, supremely elegantly dressed in white. Perfectly turned out for a studio shot, he confounds our expectations and poses her instead on the breezy seashore at Biarritz. Holding a small fold-up camera, the lady appears to consider the object with affection, as if contemplating a precious box that holds the eternal truth of picture making.\n\nBy the time Sorolla painted Antes del baño, however, three years later, the pictorial opportunities afforded by the camera are no longer symbolic. Instead they have become central to understanding the painting’s composition. The fleeting moment described, the raised position of the observer and the close cropped edges of the present work are undeniably snap-shot like in their conception. The result gives the picture surface a drama and modernity. The white side of the bathing machine before which the young girl is posed becomes a flat triangle, almost abstract in form. Its inert even planks contrast with the constant ebb and flow of the rippling waves that caress the shoreline, while the sea itself is rent in two by the dangling, flapping sail.\n\nThe synthesis in Antes del baño of such a rich vocabulary of pictorial references, combined with such economy of means in execution is one of Sorolla’s supreme painterly achievements. The success of Sorolla’s audacious composition, and the robust handling of the paint surface, however, were not without good reason. The execution of Antes del baño followed immediately upon the triumph of Sorolla’s inaugural exhibitions in the U.S.A. between the beginning of February and the end of May 1909. There, first in New York, then Buffalo and finally in Boston, Sorolla was the talk of the town. At the Hispanic Society in New York he showed 356 works. The exhibition was open from 10am until 10pm every day of the week for a month, during which time 160,000 people came through the doors. And Sorolla received a similar rapturous welcome in the other two cities. The exhibition catalogue sold out, and by the time Sorolla left the USA he had sold nearly 200 paintings. An additional accolade was a request from President Taft to be painted by Sorolla, for which purpose the artist lodged at the White House. Buoyed up by these events and having already negotiated exhibitions of his work at the Art Museum of Chicago and the City Art Museum, St. Louis, Sorolla returned to Valencia to paint. Flush with his success, the present work was conceived and executed soon after his journey home, almost certainly with an American audience in mind. Exhibited to great acclaim in both Chicago and St. Louis two years later, Antes del Baño then entered the collection of the City Art Museum, St. Louis.\n\nFIG. 1, Joaquín Sorolla, El baño (Bathing; study for Triste Herencia) 1899, Collection Masaveu. Madrid - DIGI: 246D05102\n\nFIG. 2, Joaquín Sorolla, La vuelta de la pesca (Return from Fishing), 1894, Musée d’Orsay, Paris – DIGI 243D05102\n\nFIG. 3, Claude Monet, View of the Bay and Maritime Alps at Antibes, 1888, Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, Connecticut, U.S.A. – DIGI 259D05102\n\nFIG. 4, Edgar Degas, Dancer in Her Dressing Room, 1879, Cincinnati Art Museum – 250D05102\n\nFIG. 5, Joaquín Sorolla, Idilio en el mar (Seaside Idyll), 1908, Hispanic Society of America, New York – DIGI 236D05102\n\nFIG. 6, Joaquín Sorolla, Nina saliendo del baño (After Bathing), 1909, Private Collection – DIGI 239D05102\n\nFIG. 7, Joaquín Sorolla, Antes del baño, playa de Valencia (Before Bathing, Valencia Beach), 1909, Museo de Pontevedra – DIGI 278D05102\n\nFIG. 8, Joaquín Sorolla, Elena en la playa, Biarritz (Elena on the Beach at Biarritz) 1908, Private Collection – DIGI 234D05102\n\nFIG. 9, Joaquín Sorolla, Instantánea (Instantaneous), 1906, Museo Sorolla, Madrid - DIGI 235D05102\n\nFIG. 10, The front entrance of the St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri, USA\nSigned and dated Sorolla / 1909 l.l.