He received his initial art education, at the age of fourteen, in his native town, and then under a succession of teachers including Cayetano Capuz, Salustiano Asenjo. At the age of eighteen he traveled to Madrid, vigorously studying master paintings in the Museo del Prado. After completing his military service, at twenty-two Sorolla obtained a grant which enabled a four year term to study painting in Rome, Italy, where he was welcomed by and found stability in the example of F. Pradilla, the director of the Spanish Academy in Rome. A long sojourn to Paris in 1885 provided his first exposure to modern painting; of special influence were exhibitions of Jules Bastien-Lepage and Adolf von Menzel. Back in Rome he studied with José Benlliure, Emilio Sala, and José Villegas.
In 1888 Sorolla returned to Valencia to marry Clotilde García del Castillo, whom he had first met in 1879, while working in her father's studio. By 1895 they would have three children together: Maria, born in 1890, Joaquín, born in 1892, and Elena, born in 1895. In 1890 they moved to Madrid, and for the next decade Sorolla's efforts as an artist were focussed mainly on the production of large canvases of orientalist, mythological, historical, and social subjects, for display in salons and international exhibitions in Madrid, Paris, Venice, Munich, Berlin, and Chicago.
His first striking success was achieved with Another Marguerite (1892), which was awarded a gold medal at the National Exhibition in Madrid, then first prize at the Chicago International Exhibition, where it was acquired and subsequently donated to the Washington University Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. He soon rose to general fame and became the acknowledged head of the modern Spanish school of painting. His picture The Return from Fishing (1894) was much admired at the Paris Salon and was acquired by the state for the Musée du Luxembourg. It indicated the direction of his mature output.
With this painting Sorolla ceased his career as a salon artist, and never returned to a theme of such overt social consciousness. At the same time, a series of preparatory oil sketches for Sad Inheritance were painted with the greatest luminosity and bravura, and foretold an increasing interest in shimmering light and of a medium deftly handled. Sorolla thought well enough of these sketches that he presented two of them as gifts to American artists; one to John Singer Sargent, the other to William Merritt Chase.
A special exhibition of his works--figure subjects, landscapes and portraits--at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris in 1906 eclipsed all his earlier successes and led to his appointment as Officer of the Legion of Honour. The show included nearly 500 works, early paintings as well as recent sun-drenched beach scenes, landscapes, and portraits, a productivity which amazed critics and was a financial triumph. Though subsequent large-scale exhibitions in Germany and London were greeted with more restraint, while in England in 1908 Sorolla met Archer Milton Huntington, who made him a member of The Hispanic Society of America in New York City, and invited him to exhibit there in 1909. The exhibition was comprised of 356 paintings, 195 of which sold. Sorolla spent five months in America and painted more than twenty portraits.
The appearance of sunlight could be counted on to rouse his interest, and it was outdoors where he found his ideal portrait settings. Thus, not only did his daughter pose standing in a sun-dappled landscape for María at La Granja (1907), but so did Spanish royalty, for the Portrait of King Alfonso XIII in a Hussar's Uniform (1907) . For Portrait of Mr. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911), the American artist posed seated at his easel in his Long Island garden, surrounded by extravagant flowers. The conceit reaches its high point in My Wife and Daughters in the Garden (1910), in which the idea of traditional portraiture gives way to the sheer fluid delight of a painting constructed with thick passages of color, Sorolla's love of family and sunlight merged.
Huntington had envisioned the work depicting a history of Spain, but the painter preferred the less specific 'Vision of Spain', eventually opting for a representation of the regions of the Iberian Peninsula, and calling it The Provinces of Spain. Despite the immensity of the canvases, Sorolla painted all but one en plein air, and travelled to specific locales to paint them: Navarre, Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia, Elche, Seville, Andalusia, Extremadura, Galicia, Guipuzcoa, Castile, Leon, and Ayamonte, at each site painting models posed in local costume. Each painting celebrated the landscape and culture of its region, panoramas composed of throngs of laborers and locals. By 1917 he was, by his own admission, exhausted. He completed the final panel by the middle of 1919.
Sorolla suffered a stroke in 1920, while painting a portrait in his garden in Madrid. Paralyzed for over three years, he died in 1923. The room housing the Provinces at the Hispanic Society of America opened to the public in 1926.
Sorolla's work is represented in museums throughout Spain, Europe, and America, and in many private collections in Europe and America. In 1933, J. Paul Getty purchased ten Impressionist beach scenes done by Sorolla, several of which are now housed in the J. Paul Getty Museum.