One Hundred Miles South of Valencia

This is a portion of his Travel Account written by Aureliano de Beruete (eminent historian and critic of art) when he visited the Valencian impressionist / historical painter Joaquín Sorolla, who was on holiday in Javea 1905.


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Aureliano de Beruete painted by Sorolla

One hundred miles south of Valencia, a little used narrow-gage railway brings us through an opulent country to a shack of a railway-station known as Vergel. The only train that brings you there in the day arrives exactly at noon. From the station there is nothing to see save a miserable country restaurant across the way and a blazing white road that stretches away in radiant sunlight across the treeless plain.

That twelve-mile ride in the tumble-down Vergel diligence is not a tempting prospect, but it is the opening of the door of Javea, a hidden Paradise where Sorolla has done a great part of his outdoor work.

Those twelve miles are very, very long. The dust powders you as white as it has silvered the vineyard by the wayside. The fat lady who has come with her maid to spend two weeks in the country with her family, cries, "Dios, que calor," and swears by all the saints that the climate is changing and that the summers are surely warmer than when she was a girl. Her servant pulls close the curtains of the crazy vehicle to keep out the light and the dust.

We lumber through many a Spanish village with its white-washed walls, gay doors and windows, dominating church, staring faces. What strikes one as very curious is to find electric lights in most of these villages that are absolutely without other evidence of modern civilization. Ahead of one in the plain looms Montgo, a mountain of naked rock. For it, the road makes a vast detour, and at the crest of a little hill we look at last upon Javea.

An Arab town, is your first thought. In a confused mass of white-walled houses, half- revealed rose gardens and beaten, unpaved roads, the town creeps down to its beach.

The violet of the bay is held at the sides by the splendor of two great capes, San Antonio and Nao. Their walls of rock sweep far out into the sea and form the most eastern projection of Spain in the Mediterranean.

Blocked from north and south by these sentinels, backed by Montgo, the town sleeps as though lulled by its hushing sea, by the sighing cypresses about its well-trodden Calvary. The town has no hotel; Baedeker * is unknown. A slattern woman, at one wretched place, after prodigious scurrying about by her husband to buy provisions, serves you two fried eggs, a piece of cold fish, and some black olives.

A walk through the town will take you past some of the great raisin warehouses. Inside, in the semi- gloom, hundreds of women are stemming raisins for shipment to England. As they work, they sing in honor of the Virgin a dragging canticle that echoes through the ancient arches of the place and out into the still afternoon air.

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Life is in every way most primitive and living is very cheap. A furnished house near the quay may be rented for eleven cents a day, but beware, unless you bring an establishment of servants with you from Madrid, you may find little to eat. There is no ice, and little meat.

Butter is a messy mass brought in a tin from Switzerland, or even Denmark, and served day after day in the same tin until it becomes a rancid offense. Inquiry elicits a fabled report that a certain very rich man actually has some cows on a farm far away, but that their milk is precious beyond selling, and is sent only as a gift of great price to those far gone in sickness. Goats' milk only may be had. Antonio drives the goats to your place and milks them just before your breakfast, and the milk is drunk warm before it spoils with the heat. "My milk is better than Vicente's," says the goatherd. "I know best the places in the mountain where there is grass."  This he says with the air of a botanist announcing the secret of a bed of rarest orchids. Meat is covered thick with salt, and hung in a tin pail down a well.

A hapless artist who would prefer to live near the sea, must throw himself on the mercy of Paquita, who may or may not be willing to cook for him in the back room of her grocery. Without butter, everything is fried or boiled with olive oil. The cooking is done out of doors over a tiny fire of twigs.

The fish is delightful, so are the melons, but strange, crawly things of the sea are served, whose like you have only before seen in alcohol bottles in zoological museums. Occasionally, on opening a soup tureen, you find floating on the surface of the oil soup a good sized fish, boiled, head and all. Its single visible eye stares at you glassily, and you replace the cover of the dish and turn to find what further adventure dinner may bring you.

Javea is the ideal place for a painter. There are no newspapers, no letters, no engagements. One paints from dawn to dusk. It is the huge, tawny rocks of the place under the pitiless and searching illumination of the sun of Alicante that supply the characteristic printable note of the place.

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Here Sorolla has shown us wonderful studies of the children of the port at play, as in the remarkable study of the boy hunting mussels. These happy little savages play about all day in a freedom undisturbed by problems of primary education. "Is there a river between New York and England?" asked a sixteen-year-old girl, at Javea, "or is London separated from England only by mountains?"

It was in the limpid waters of this port that Sorolla undertook the solution of a problem of the swirl of sun-pierced water about a human figure. Of this subject he made several preliminary studies, and then in four afternoons of brisk work produced his large canvas. The composition for this picture was scrawled on the side of his house in charcoal while servants were busy stretching the big canvas for the work. The picture was painted, of course, directly from nature, the stretcher being tied with ropes to some posts which had been arranged temporarily on a ledge of rock, first chiseled smooth for the purpose. Six urchins served in relays as models, three swimming round and round for the painter, while three rested and warmed themselves in the sun.

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Of his own family bathing among the rocks of Javea he has shown us some delightful pictures, that reflect all the gaiety, radiant happiness, and intimacy of the scene. Plunging about in the swinging sea and clear waters of these secret glens, with the laughter of the Sorolla children echoing back from the rocks about, it seems impossible to believe that there is anything in the world but youth and laughter and success.

The colors at Javea are almost unbelievable. Above, a cloudless sky of violet-blue is broken by the mounting yellow walls of Cabo San Antonio, all about the rock formations are brilliant with embedded stones of every hue, while every swirl of the water discovers a wealth of color in the swinging, growing plants that find their home in the sea.

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"I can't paint that," "I can't paint that," Sorolla often says of these incidents at Javea. "Everybody would only say it was made up in the studio." And then he adds, "As far as outdoor work is concerned, a studio is only a garage; a place in which to store pictures and repair them, never a place in which to paint them."

* Karl Baedeker on July 1, 1827, was a German publisher and pioneer in the business of worldwide travel guides.