Emilio Sala Francés

Alcoy, 1850 - Madrid, 1910

  • Girl with Flowers

  • Abandoned Doll


Emilio Sala was born in Alcoy in 1850 to Concha Francés Sempere and Pedro Sala Arenas. In 1851 the family moved to Valencia to run a store called La Villa de París in the Calle de Zaragoza which sold luxury items and imported goods.

In 1861 Sala began to receive private classes from his cousin the painter Plácido Francés, professor of drawing after the antique and from life at the San Carlos School of Fine Arts in Valencia. In 1864 he enrolled formally at the school and was taught private classes by Salustiano Asenjo. He remained at the San Carlos School until the 1870–71 academic year. That year he travelled to Madrid for the first time to visit the Museo del Prado, where he is documented as having worked as a copyist.

Also in 1871 he entered his first work in the National Exhibition, La prisión del príncipe de Viana (“The Prison of the Prince of Viana”), which earned him a second-place medal. This success led him to establish himself in Madrid temporarily during that year and permanently the following year.

He remained in Madrid from 1871 to 1885. During these years he frequented the educated and aristocratic circles and mainly produced portraits and mural decorations for financiers, the aristocracy and the royal family. He decorated the Manzanedo and Anglada palaces, the Café Fornos, the Lion d’Or and the Cantina Americana.

He took part in the National Exhibition of 1878, submitting Guillem de Vinatea, delante de Alfonso IV haciéndole revocar un contrafuero (“Guillem de Vinatea Before Alfonso IV Making him Revoke an Infringement of the Charters”) together with a series of bozzetti for decorating the Cantina Americana owned by Ramón Guerrero, the father of the actress María Guerrero. He won a gold medal at this exhibition.

In addition to executing these works he continued producing portraits. He entered the Retrato de la señorita H.J. (“Portrait of Señorita H.J.”) and Retrato de la marquesa de Coquilla (“Portrait of the Marquise of Coquilla”) in the National Exhibition of 1881 and for that of 1882 he executed a Retrato de la infanta doña Paz (“Portrait of the Infanta Doña Paz”), which aroused widespread interest and received many critical reviews as the sitter was a member of the royal family.

The prestige Sala attained during those years led him to be considered for the decoration of the church of San Francisco el Grande, but the project was thwarted by a series of intrigues. He also failed to secure the post of lecturer at the School of Arts and Crafts. All this prompted him to leave Madrid and settle in Rome. In 1885 he applied successfully for a stipend as an academician of merit at the Accademia di Spagna in Rome. At the time the academy was directed by Palmaroli. Sala took up his post on 1 October that year and although he was due to remain in Rome until 1 November 1888, on 31 March 1887 Palmaroli granted him temporary permission for a stay in Paris, which became permanent. He remained in Paris until 1896.

In 1889 he submitted La Expulsión de los judíos (“The Expulsion of the Jews”) to the Paris Exposition Universelle, winning a second-place medal at a time when history painting had ceased to interest the French public and critics. In 1891 the painting was shown at the Universal Exposition in Berlin, where it was awarded a gold medal.

There is little information about these years. It is known that he married Eugenia Bernard, who bore him a daughter Marcela, his only child. In the professional field he is documented as having decorated the “ceiling for the dining-room of the mansion of an opulent and very rich Yankee”, for whom he painted various allegories of bread, wine, meat and fish. And above all he produced a large number of small paintings featuring a female figure in a fashionable setting or outdoor gardens.

But while in Paris, Sala developed an interest in the experimentation with light and colour then being carried out by a few contemporary painters, and in the most widespread scientific writings of the day. The style that defined Sala’s personality took shape in that city.

On returning to Madrid, he engaged chiefly in graphic illustration, writing technical and theoretic treatises and teaching. In 1896 La Ilustración Española y Americana published an article of his entitled “desiccation in painting” and in 1906 he brought out his famous treatise on the “grammar of colour”, Gramática del color. He also painted the ceiling of the Infanta Isabella’s palace in Calle Quintana with the theme of The Hours, which was highly acclaimed by critics and greatly commented on – among others by the poet Juan Ramón Jiménez.

Even so, Sala was still not favourably regarded in academic circles. In 1906 he applied for a vacant post of full member of the Academy of San Fernando and was rejected in favour of Menéndez Pidal. Perhaps to make up for this, a chair was established for him in theory, colour aesthetics and painting procedures, and he took up his post on 24 January 1907.

The Regional Exhibition of Valencia in 1910 attempted to pay a small tribute to the painter, who died in Madrid on 14 April that year of angina pectoris.

Carmen Gracia