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Sorolla, Joaquin

Category: Artist and sculptor


Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (27 February 1863 – 10 August 1923) was a painter, born in Valencia, Spain.

Sorolla was the eldest child of Joaquin Sorolla, and his wife, Concepción Bastida [hence the construction of his name]. His sister, Concha, was born a year later.

In August 1865, both children were orphaned when their parents died. They were thereafter cared for by their maternal aunt and uncle.  The loss of his parents at such an early age seems to have directed the whole course of his life, as Joaquin Sorolla was passionate about only two loves in his life - his family and his art.

Clotilde at the Beach 1904

Instead of academic study, the young Sorolla would spend his school days making drawings in his copybooks and by the age of 15 he was winning major prizes for his paintings at the Academy of Valencia. 

His extraordinary talent was brought to the attention of Antonia Garcia, a famous Valencian photographer, and it was whilst he was working for Garcia that he met Garcia’s daughter, Clotilde García del Castillo, in 1879.   He was just 16.  In 1888, aged 25, Sorolla returned to Valencia to marry Clotilde. By 1895, they would have three children together: Maria, born in 1890, Joaquín, born in 1892, and Elena, born in 1895.  The marriage lasted his entire life, Clotilde devotedly cared for him in later years after he had a stroke.

Simply expressed, the inspiration in all Sorolla’s life was LOVE, love of his family, love of his fellow man, coupled with a sure and certain understanding of his destiny – to paint.

Running along the beach 1908


Sorolla specialised in painting truly enormous or ‘monumental’ canvases of people at work and play in his native Spain.  Some had a caring social theme, but in general he aimed at simply capturing humanity.  He painted landscapes, formal portraits and historical scenes to make a living, but Sorolla’s heart was in painting ordinary people, adults and children, especially children.

1895 - birth of Elena

He was also a master at painting Light.  His best work is painted outdoors, thus he used literal light to try to capture Light in everything.  Although he was not a Symbolist, he instinctively incorporated symbols in his spiritual work, water, the sea and ocean, boats, bulls and cows.

I hate Darkness. Claude Monet once said that painting in general did not have Light enough in it. I agree with him. We painters, however, can never reproduce Light as it really is. I can only approach the truth of it.

Just out of the sea

He was an exceptionally hard worker, he would work six to nine hours a day, often standing in the full glare of the sun dressed in a suit. 

Sorolla also painted very, very fast. 

Most of his pictures were painted in from four to six mornings, many in one or two. 

I could not paint at all if I had to paint slowly. Every effect is so transient, it must be rapidly painted…………The great difficulty with large canvases is that they should by right be painted as fast as a sketch. By speed only can you gain an appearance of fleeting effect.

And the reason he painted so fast was so that he remained inspired throughout and did not succumb to becoming obsessed with the technical side.

When an artist begins to count strokes instead of regarding nature he is lost. This preoccupation with technique, at the expense of truth and sincerity, is the principal fault I find in much of the work of modern painters.

Beneath the canopy 1910

Sorolla did no preliminary sketches, had no idea how a painting would turn out before he started, and simply let himself go to the feelings and emotions that proved to be his inspiration.  He simply built up the composition as he went along. 

Go to nature with no parti pris. You should not know what your picture is to look like until it is done. Just see the picture that is coming.

Put simply, he is the perfect example of just how very beautiful fully inspired paintings can be.

If ever a painter wrought a miracle of illusion with brush and pigment that painter was Velazquez …. Velazquez got that marvellous atmospheric background by one broad sweep of his flowing brush, charged with colour so thin that you can feel the very texture of the canvas through it.

Nature, the sun itself, produces colour effects on this same principle, but instantaneously.

The impression of these evanescent visions is what we make desperate attempts to catch and fix by any means at hand.

At such moments I am unconscious of materials, of style, of rules, of everything that intervenes between my perception and the object or idea perceived.

No, mes amis, impressionism is not charlatanry, nor a formula, nor a school. I should say rather it is the bold resolve to throw all those things overboard.


Sorolla used colour almost as an indicator of where his heart lay.  Commissioned paintings, those done for money, those that had perhaps a serious message or intent were painted in sombre colours, but when he was painting from the heart, his colours are full of light and pastel colour.

peeling potatoes 1891

From about 1900 onwards for outdoor work (as opposed to studio portraits) Sorolla’s palette consisted of cobalt violet, rose madder, all the cadmium reds, cadmium orange, all the cadmium yellows, yellow ochre, chrome green, viridian, Prussian blue, cobalt blue, French ultramarine and lead white.

In effect he used the colours of the rainbow with perhaps more emphasis on the pinks – the colour of Love symbolically, and violets and blues, symbolically the colours preferred by the spiritually minded. 

Sorolla received his initial art education under a succession of teachers including Cayetano Capuz, Salustiano Asenjo.  In Madrid, he studied master paintings in the Museo del Prado.  In Rome, he studied under the director of the Spanish Academy in Rome plus other classical painters. This would have given him a technical grounding.  A long sojourn to Paris in 1885 provided his first exposure to modern painting.  But none of his teachers were symbolists as such, thus his feeling for symbolism appears to have been absorbed rather than taught to him.

Preparing raisins 1900

There is also a dramatic difference between the paintings he did from his heart and those he did to earn a living – his studio portraits and commissioned works.  When he painted for money his technical skill never falters, but his colour palette changes completely.  For studio portraits, for example, he changed his palette entirely to one that included black, burnt umber, raw umber, rose madder, burnt sienna, raw sienna, yellow ochre, Naples yellow, vermilion and cobalt blue. These are the sombre colours of the commissioned artist, not the joyous rainbow colours of a man inspired.

He still produced very large paintings.  In the studio Sorolla would sometimes use a palette the size of a grand piano lid and 3 foot long brushes to allow him to stand back from his painting.

Thus the size appeared to be essential whatever subject he was painting and there is just the feeling that it was because he had to feel as though he was as immersed in the painting as he was in the scene he was painting.  Involvement, that sense of losing oneself in the subject was essential.

Boat builders 1904


Sorolla's efforts as a commercial artist were focused 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.

Another Margeurite

Sorolla painted two masterpieces in 1897, for example, linking art and science: Portrait of Dr. Simarro at the microscope and A Research. These paintings won the Prize of Honour at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts held in Madrid in that year.  The sombre colour palette is used but with great inventiveness.  Sorolla recreates the indoor environment of the laboratory, catching the luminous atmosphere produced by the artificial reddish-yellow light of a gas burner that contrasts with the weak mauvish afternoon light that shines through the window.

But Sorolla also used his paintings to bring the public’s attention to social problems and he did this without any commercial end in view.  Thus striking works such as  Another Marguerite (1892), which was awarded a gold medal at the National Exhibition in Madrid, has a social theme and is painted in sombre colours. 

Sad inheritance

Sad Inheritance, 1899, is one of his most arresting and shows children crippled from polio, bathing at the sea in Valencia; in the centre a group of children all affected by polio are being helped by a priest (Bancaja Collection).  Sad Inheritance is still an extremely large canvas, and ‘highly finished for public consideration’. Thus even though he was not doing this for any commercial gain, he devoted if anything more effort into its creation, because the subject was so dear to his heart.  A polio epidemic had struck Valencia some years earlier, thus Sorolla had seen this with his own eyes.  The painting earned Sorolla his greatest official recognition, the Grand Prix and a medal of honour at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900, and the medal of honor at the National Exhibition in Madrid in 1901.  After this painting, however, Sorolla never returned to a theme of such overt social consciousness.

This is purely speculation, but for someone who became as involved in his painting as Sorolla did, painting scenes as heart wrenching as this, may have simply been too much for him to bear.

My wife and daughters in the garden

Formal portraiture was not Sorolla's genre of preference, because it tended to restrict his creativity and could reflect his lack of interest in his subjects.  But an artist with a wife and three children as well as a love for large canvases requiring lots of paint, has to earn a living somehow, so Sorolla also accepted portrait commissions.  One of his most famous is the Portrait of Mr.Taft, President of the United States, painted at the White House.  The portraits proved profitable, and gave him the money to paint subjects nearer to his heart.

And one subject closest to his heart was his family.  My Family (1901), shows his wife and children in the foreground, with himself reflected, at work, in a distant mirror.  He painted his daughter standing in a sun-dappled landscape for María at La Granja (1907).  And in My Wife and Daughters in the Garden (1910), Sorolla's love of family and sunlight merged again.

Ultimately however, the paintings which capture the heart and soul of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, which show inspired painting at its best, which show what Light is and how love can be revealed in paint, are his beach scenes - the scenes he did of his native country and the fishing boats by the seashore, his wife and children friends and extended family.


The Provinces of Spain and death

Early in 1911, Sorolla visited the United States and later that year signed a contract to paint a series of oils on life in Spain to be installed in the Hispanic Society of America building in Manhattan. These 14 magnificent paintings, range from 12 to 14 feet in height, and total 227 feet in length.  The Sorolla Room, housing the paintings, opened to the public in 1926.  After remodeling in 2008, the Sorolla Room reopened in 2010, with the paintings on permanent display.

 The major commission of his career, it would dominate the later years of Sorolla's life.


Sorolla decided to represent the regions of the Iberian Peninsula, calling it The Provinces of Spain. Despite the immensity of the canvases, Sorolla painted all but one en plein air, and travelled to the specific locales to paint them: Navarre, Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia, Elche, Seville, Andalusia, Extremadura, Galicia, Guipuzcoa, Castile, Leon, and Ayamonte.  At each site, models posed in local costume. Each one celebrated the landscape and culture of its region, panoramas composed of throngs of labourers and locals.

But by 1917 he was, by his own admission, exhausted.  He completed the final panel in July 1919.

In 1920, Sorolla suffered a stroke, while painting a portrait in his garden in Madrid. Paralyzed for over three years, he died on 10 August 1923, aged just 60. He is buried in the Cementeri de Valencia, Spain.

After his death, Sorolla's widow, Clotilde García del Castillo, left many of his paintings to the Spanish public. The paintings eventually formed the collection that is now known as the Museo Sorolla, which was the artist's house in Madrid. The museum opened in 1932.

James Gibbons Huneker, quoted in Peel, Edmund: The Painter Joaquin Sorolla, 1989

By reason of his native genius and stubborn will-power he became what he is—the painter of vibrating sunshine without equal. Let there be no mincing of comparisons in this assertion. Not Turner, not Monet, painted so directly blinding shafts of sunlight as has this Spaniard.

Gone, gone, gone to the other shore


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