The Drunkard by Joaquín Sorolla
‘The Drunkard, Zarauz (El Borracho, Zarauz)’ by Joaquín Sorolla that has been bought by the National Gallery in London. Image copyright: The National Gallery, London.

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The Drunkard, Zarauz (El Borracho, Zarauz) was acquired through a legacy left to the National Gallery by the architect David Medd who died in 2009. It is the first painting by the artist to enter its collection.

It will go on display once the gallery reopens following the lockdown due to the coronavirus but already it can be viewed in detail on the National Gallery’s website.

The acquisition was announced shortly after the successful auction at Sotheby’s of 141 works from the Katz collection – an online sale that closed on May 27 and raised £2.27m including premium.

“Virtuosity of brushstroke”

The Drunkard.. had featured in the gallery’s 2019 exhibition Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light, the first major UK exhibition of the artist’s work in more than a century. Over 167,000 people visited the show which featured more than 60 works by the artist who has been described variously as ‘Spain’s Impressionist’ and also, during his day, ‘The World’s Greatest Living Painter’. 

The 3ft 11in x 4ft 7in (1.15 x 1.4m) oil on canvas painting dates from 1910 and was rapidly executed in situ when Sorolla frequented the taverns of Zarauz in the Basque Country where he and his family spent the summer that year. It depicts five men in the shadowy interior of a tavern. One of them stares through watery eyes towards the viewer as another pushes a glass of cider towards him.

It was a large-scale sketch produced with a rapid application of relatively thin layers of paint but Sorolla seemingly never worked up the study into a ‘finished’ picture – perhaps deliberately as he exhibited the work in its current state in his second major American retrospective exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago only a year after it was painted.

The subject was unusual for the artist during this period. While he had created earlier works with darker themes, such as His Sad Inheritance from 1899 which showed a crowd of sick and disabled children – a work that won the gold medal at the Paris Universal Exposition – Sorolla had spent the next decade mainly producing elegant portraits and sun-dappled scenes of Spanish beaches.

The latter are the works for which he achieved most renown and remain the most commercial works on the current market. The auction record for Sorolla stands at £3.7m for La Hora del Baño (The Bathing Hour) that sold at Sotheby’s in November 2003.

Speaking about the newly acquired painting, National Gallery director Dr Gabriele Finaldi said: “Following the success of the Sorolla exhibition at the National Gallery in 2019, it is very pleasing to welcome the first work by him in the Gallery’s collection. The subject of a drunkard in a Basque tavern is perhaps untypical of the artist but the virtuosity of his brushstroke and the confident, sketch-like handling reveal him at his dazzling best.”