Goya – The Portraits, National Gallery, London, until 10 January 2016

To most, the mention of the name Francisco Goya seems to trigger a respectful affirmation of his dark side, namely those disturbing visions of witches’ Sabbaths, nightmarish monsters tumbling about the sky and lurid decapitations that litter the ‘Disasters of War’ etchings. Goya is seen as unquestionably great and a unique bridge to the modern, but perhaps not quite on the same level in painterly terms as his key influences Velásquez or Rembrandt. The astonishing exhibition Goya – The Portraits at the National Gallery should help to change this.

The skewed view of the Spanish master is hardly surprising since there have been a number of exhibitions in recent years of Goya’s prints. For example, earlier this year the Courtauld Gallery showed the ‘Witches and old Women’ album, which I reviewed here, but there has been less visibility for Goya’s paintings and even less his portraits, which undoubtedly manifest the rival element of his genius. Anyone who enters Goya – The Portraits in the rather cramped-feeling, black-walled basement of the National Gallery this autumn surely has to leave with a completely up- graded view of Goya. For it is this other more positively human side that the curators are keen to reveal, in this truly mouth-watering assemblage of paintings of personages known to Goya throughout his life as court painter. The exhibition took many years to come together and as the curator, Dr Xavier Bray, is keen to show, its exhibits were drawn as much from smaller Spanish art galleries and private collectors as from the Prado, which nevertheless still forms the ‘backbone’. The renowned portrait of the 13th Duchess of Alba, famous for her beauty and charisma and one of Goya’s key patrons, rarely travels, and the decision to lend it was not a given. But without her famously imperious presence the collection would have been missing a vital organ, and so it is to the organisers’ credit that she holds court centre stage.

The Marchioness of Santa Cruz (1805) © Madrid, Museo National del Prado
The Marchioness of Santa Cruz (1805) © Madrid, Museo National del Prado

Goya’s evolution as a painter of portraits coincides with his single-minded ambition to be First Court Painter to the king, a post only previously held by Velásquez. At the age of forty he was finally appointed court painter to Charles III and in 1789 he became First Court Painter to Charles IV. What makes Goya’s achievement all the more impressive is that he arrived at it from famously humble origins and only gained his first portrait commission at the relatively late age of 37. Accounts of Goya’s working practice as regards painting portraits are scarce. In the biography of his father from 1831, Javier Goya writes ‘He was particularly gifted when it came to painting portraits and those that he did in one session are much acclaimed. He painted only in one session, sometimes lasting ten hours, but never as the light was fading, and the final touches he would apply at night, with artificial light’.

Goya’s ascension to a respectable court position set him at the centre of a period of great social change in Spain and the wider world, as the enlightenment, revolution and romanticism swept through, each staking their claim for permanence. Goya was there to record in his portraiture the changing face of the citizenry, of fashion and mores. Of course a number of other renowned artists also experienced these changes – Ingres, Delacroix, Géricault, and Gainsborough, for example – but it was Goya, who uniquely possessed that rapier-like scrutiny of the world around him, who moved on decisively the expressive qualities of art. We know this steely gaze well from the uncompromisingly raw and violent scenes depicted in The Disasters of War (1810-1820), and at an earlier stage in certain plates of The Caprichos (1797-1798), where Goya’s revulsion at the bestial iniquities of the Spanish Inquisition, rampaging soldiery, civilian on civilian brutality and state injustice in the form of madhouses and prisons is laid bare through the expertly judged interaction of etching, aquatint, charcoal and pencil. But this quiet rage against contemporary injustice and human degradation, this intrinsically humanistic preoccupation, this inability to look aside from suffering and the underlying truths of human folly, desire, regret, dream and intransigent hope, endows his portraits with an indefinable power which equals the best of Rembrandt. Goya’s miracle is that he reveals the inner life of his subjects in a way which seems to gesture invitingly to the explicitly expressive and at a stretch even the later abstract art of the modern age.

With Goya, psychology and physiognomy are brazenly entering the domain of the portrait artist for the first time. Looking at the earliest self-portrait, painted in 1780 and the first in the exhibition, one sees only the time in which it was painted, it remains rooted there, but in the powerful later self-portraits of 1815, towards the close of the exhibition, one sees something far more expressive and less knowingly sophisticated. Here all trappings are removed, and we are given above all the dark mood of the sitter, the problematic period Goya has endured, the suffering he has witnessed. Here the fatigue and the vestiges of fortitude all coalesce in the face, the dark pools of the eyes and their shadowy environs, the resigned yet still determined mouth, sealed while all else does the speaking, the grey hemmed hair pushed back, the collar and shirt open, as if Goya wishes to reveal as much of the face and neck as possible to the dim light, as if he wants to literally bare himself. It is the image of a man who is categorically not posing, but knows only how to keep working, has paused reluctantly and is almost as if facing a camera’s truthfulness, rather than a painter and his easel.

One of Goya’s well-known earlier portraits, Manuel Osorio Manriquede Zuniga (1788), is that of the child Osorio, who stands facing the artist in his jaunty red suit with silver sash and lace ruff. The boy famously holds a magpie on a length of string which in turn holds Goya’s visiting card in its beak, a wry touch. Either side of the child are a cage containing goldfinches and three wide-eyed cats watching the magpie. Interpretations abound for the mysterious arrangement. No less so for the huge canvas The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Bourbón (1783-4). This mysterious and highly arresting portrait of a group demands contemplation. The portrait is centred on the moment Mariá Teresa receives her coiffure. Sur- rounded by family and key members of their entourage, she sits at centre with a shawl around her shoulders to stave off clippings, her long dark hair combed at, attended to by a focused hairdresser. Behind her, two maids stand, one holding her readied bonnet on a platter. Before Mariá Teresa is a strange card table which appears to be held up by only two legs. Don Luis is laying out cards on the table, his nose red from snuff. Other characters include a young girl whose face is doll-like and cocked to one side, Luis Mária, a serious-looking boy captured in profile, and to the right a group of male onlookers whose identities are all still debated. The last of these is rather sinister, seemingly detached from proceedings and facing the artist, appearing to reach for something in his pocket. The grinning man in front of him in his strange white cap (perhaps a musician) surreptitiously offers his hand to receive whatever is about to be produced. This whole scene is replete with enigma and undisclosed messages. Ultimately the viewer be- comes almost disorientated, unable to distinguish between what might be naturalistic reality and that pervading hallucinatory presence which seems to gesture symbolically to the world of the Caprichos. The eyes of Mária Teresa, those of the maids, the little-doll girl and the smiling man in the cap all meet our gaze, the rest look elsewhere. Yet there is something pensive and uncertain about their look, as if they are all uncomfortably illuminated in the midst of their domestic monotony and through this have reluctantly become conscious of it.

Goya’s commissions were for statesmen, politicians and aristocrats, many of whom he had friendships with or at least amicable relations, carefully cultivated. Prominent aristocrats such as the Duke of Medinacelli or the Count of Floridablanca could count on Goya to paint an altarpiece here or a family group there. Later he turned to painting those in his intimate circle. Here Goya could be even more revealing in his psychological probing. Instead of just giving these religious, intellectual, military and political individuals what they wanted as previous painters might have done, Goya gave them what he saw meeting his gaze. Of course he could not always be entirely open, and he had to be more careful when it came to portraying a despotic monarch such as the risible Ferdinand VII, but by and large Goya had a freedom to communicate what he saw in a sitter. So for example in his 1797 portrait of Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdéz, we see a face which we might see replicated sitting next to us on the tube on the way home. Goya, by highlighting the red of burst capillaries on the cheeks, the ash dusted hair, the look of world-weariness around the eyes and that vulnerable half-open mouth, gives us a man in the autumn of his life, with all the stricken humanity contained within his greater portion of past and lesser portion of future brilliantly articulated. This is just one example; there are many more. Wherever one looks in this exhibition one sees this tender honesty, this humanely whispered message from Goya to his sitters which says, ‘your possible truth is safe in my hands’, from the exquisitely attired Don Valentin Bellvis de Moncada y Pizarro (1795) whose dark heavy-browed eyes turn to us with gentle complicity, to the remarkable portrait of the Dowager Marchioness of Villafranca (1796), where despite all that so deeply impresses, the shimmering shawl, the nimbus of hair with its blue rosette, the luxurious flower clasp, it is the face that irresistibly divulges what might be retained within; long stirred secrets, the secreted button box of disappointments, wisdom not quite fulfilled and a few last springs of hope.

Goya’s most generous patrons between the years 1785 and 1799 were the 9th Duke of Osuna and his wife the Count Duchess of Benavente. They commissioned thirty paintings and their own portraits to decorate their Madrid home. One of the great paintings here is that of the Duke’s family The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children (1788). Goya uses a new pastel-like technique creating a muted, softer and thus endearingly sympathetic portrayal of this liberal-minded family with whom he enjoyed such a warm friendship. The charming aristocratic offspring, who stare out of the picture with that characteristic look of naïve openness common to small children of any time, would continue their family’s patronage of Goya in later life. Goya also leaves us a truly stunning portrait of the Duchess alone, completed in 1785. Along with the Duchess of Alba she was the most celebrated woman in Spain in that period. But where the former was known for her beauty and eccentricity, the latter was synonymous with elegance, wit and intellectual prowess. All these attributes are present in Goya’s depiction of her, which is according to the curators ‘a dazzling evocation of her character and tastes; a brilliant piece of virtuosity which shows off the extravagance of her fashionable Parisian dress and straw hat, adorned with ribbons, feathers and flowers, and at the same time a perfect expression of the intelligence and strength of character which transforms an otherwise plain face’.

Despite an illness that left him completely deaf, Goya pushed on with com- missions and in 1805 he produced The Marchioness of Santa Cruz, which featured the Countess of Osilo, in fact one of the grown-up daughters of the Osuna family, Joaquina, now aged twenty-one. In a nod to the masters of classical antiquity, Goya paints her stretched out on a plush plum-coloured divan, resting languidly on one elbow, her other hand holding the then fashionable lyre-guitar. Her head is charmingly crowned with yellowing vine leaves, yet as the catalogue suggests there is no sign here of ‘bacchanalian impropriety’. She is a muse and treated with reverence and sensitivity by the painter, who after all had known her all her life, yet the sinuous lock of dark hair suggestively tapering out at the midpoint of her breast is still a bold step. Always one senses Goya wants to reveal the essence of the subject, the mood of the sitter, but goes only as far as he can within the bounds of his relationship to the sitter. Goya’s eye seeks to unearth what these settled-in human features mask or covet, as if detecting the valuable mineral deposits beneath the crust. Around 1805 he produced another masterpiece of tender feminine beauty. Antonia Zárate was an actress Goya admired, who died in 1811. At the time of the portrait she was ill and Goya brilliantly captures the melancholy shade of her presence. The contrast between the deep black of her dress, veil and hair which seamlessly join in one dark enclosure of her vulnerability, against the intense gold yellow of the divan and the very lightly flushed flesh tones of her face is everything. One of the most extraordinary aspects of Goya’s painting is the way in which he manages to capture ne detail, somehow recalling a Van Eyck or Memling. Here the delicate shadow of lace on the pale neck of Antonia is a case in point. This painstaking attention to detail is also vividly demonstrated in the incredible complexity of shades and tones, for example within the shawl of the Dowager Marchioness of Villafranca, in the shifting depths of the blue dress worn by Maria Teresa in Maria Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas on Horseback (1793) and in the sumptuous blue, pink and white collage of silk, feather and lace worn by the Countess Duchess of Benavente (1785).

The liberal enlightened reign of Charles IV, which had permitted Goya to prosper, came to an abrupt end in 1808 when Napoleon’s armies invaded Spain and his brother Joseph Bonaparte took the throne. Goya swore an oath of allegiance to Joseph, painted members of the French regime and was awarded the Royal Order of Spain. But when the Bourbon dynasty was returned to the throne, the new King Ferdinand VII showed he did not possess the enlightened views of his father. He revoked the constitution, reinstated the inquisition and launched a reign of terror, from which not even Goya was immune. Having extricated himself from a potentially lethal situation after being questioned on his loyalty to the French occupiers, Goya continued work on his Disasters of War etchings, but the lack of royal commissions under Ferdinand VII meant that he became more isolated from political and intellectual life. In May-June 1814, Goya sealed his duties as court painter with a ‘magnificent and intriguingly ambiguous’ portrait of Ferdinand VII. At the same time he was in danger of falling foul of the Inquisition over perceived indecency in certain paintings. In the two self-portraits of 1815, these trials are etched in Goya’s presence. He was sixty-nine years old. A few more commissions dribbled in but he turned largely to print making, embarking on the extraordinary and analysis defying series Disparates. Goya acquired his ‘Quinta del Sordo’ (House of the Deaf Man’) in 1819, but by the end of that year was gravely ill and almost died. In gratitude to his friend and doctor Arrieta, Goya produced a portrait of the two of them the following year, the painter in bed, ravaged by sick- ness, swooning into unconsciousness, held up by the calm, rugged featured doctor who bids him drink from a glass while Goya’s left hand clutches weakly at the sheets. Behind them shadowy figures gather, echoing those ambiguous dream figures found in certain etchings, hovering as if to counsel the dying man or accompany him on his last journey. This large impactful canvas depicting human defiance against what seem insurmountable odds forms a fitting closure to the exhibition, in a sense summarising in one exemplary canvas Goya’s ‘survivor’ trajectory, which both revolutionised and prolonged his extraordinary artistic life.

By Will Stone

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