Published: April 30, 2002
By Stephen May
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Spain’s Francisco Goya, one of the greatest, most influential artists of all time, remains to this day a towering but enigmatic figure in art history. Accomplished as painter and printmaker, ahead of his time in a number of fields, he earned belated worldwide recognition. His enormous oeuvre of nearly 2,000 paintings, drawings, engravings and lithographs continues to fascinate Twenty-first Century viewers.
The candor and perceptiveness of Goya’s portraits, the graphic realism of his vignettes of everyday life and of war, and his idiosyncratic depictions of grotesque fantasies have intrigued and sometimes puzzled observers for decades. A worthy successor to the Baroque masters and widely regarded as the finest painter of his era, Goya (1746-1828) influenced such Nineteenth Century French titans as Delacroix, Daumier, Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists. His work had an impact on American painters ranging from George Bellows, Thomas Eakins and Robert Henri to Jenny Holzer, Robert Motherwell and John Walker.
All the more reason to applaud scholars like Dr Janis A. Tomlinson, who of late have pinned down verifiable facts about his career and provided fresh insights into his oeuvre. Since the majority of Goya’s artworks are in Spain, in palaces and churches and much in museums, notably the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, major exhibitions of his work in this country are eagerly anticipated.
An especially rewarding display of the artist’s output is included in “Goya; ,” an exhibition organized by the Prado (where it opened last fall) and the National Gallery of Art, where it is on view through June 2.
The show is supported by the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, the General Dynamics/General Dynamics Santa Barbara Sistemas and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
Comprising 114 paintings, works on paper, tapestry cartoons and tapestries — some of which have never been seen in the United States — this beautiful exhibition and useful catalog not only offer information about the artist’s lifelong fascination with female subjects, but also help delineate his overall genius for contemporary observers. Its astute American curator, Tomlinson, director of arts in the Academy of the National Sciences, is a leading Goya scholar and a stickler for historical accuracy.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was born in Fuendetodos, a village perched on a barren plain some 30 miles from the major Aragonese city of Zaragoza. His modest, rough-stone birthplace is preserved as a house museum in a town with a population, now as then, of about 100. Goya’s mother was from the lower ranks of the local landed gentry, his father a master gilder from Zaragoza.
The family soon moved back to Zaragoza where the future artist’s early talent for drawing led to a teenaged apprenticeship with a minor local painter. After twice failing to win scholarships to the Royal Academy in Madrid, Goya visited Rome in the early 1770s, where he developed his skills and learned the art of fresco painting.
Back in Spain, he executed a commission for frescoes for the imposing Basilica del Pilar in Zaragoza that remain impressive achievements to this day. In 1773 Goya married Josefa Bayeu, the sister of the successful painter Francisco Bayeu, who had also done fresco work in the Basilica.
After moving to Madrid, the Goyas produced six children, only one of whom survived to adulthood. A delicate portrait in the National Gallery exhibition, long thought to be of the painter’s wife, is now regarded as depicting an unknown young woman.
On his brother-in-law’s recommendation, the 29-year-old Goya was hired as a designer by the Royal Tapestry Factory of Santa Barbara, which is still in business in Madrid. For more than a decade Goya created large cartoons — completed paintings on which tapestries were based. Many were destined to decorate King Charles III’s new Royal Palace in Madrid and various royal residences, including El Escorial.
Although earlier Spain had boasted such artistic masters as El Greco, Jose de Ribera and Bartholomé Esteban Murillo, the country had not produced an outstanding painter since the death of the great Diego Velázquez in 1660. Artists from elsewhere in Europe were prominent on the Spanish art scene prior to Goya’s arrival.
Goya’s early hunting cartoons — a favorite royal subject — were rather run-of-the-mill affairs, but soon he began to create original compositions, based on contemporary life in Spain, that set him apart from other tapestry designers. Starting in 1775 he painted more than 60 scenes such as “The Swing” (1779); “The Fair of Madrid” (1777); “The Laundresses” (1779); “The Rendezvous” (1779); and “The Straw Mannikin” (1791-92).
These evocative pictures, painted with a decorative harmony linked to the rococo manner, recorded the amusements and flashy costumes of “majas” and “mahos,” middle-class characters then in their heyday, as well as glimpses of courting couples, weddings and fiestas in which aristocrats and commoners mingled. “Goya was above all else a visual artist,” writes Tomlinson in the exhibition catalog, “with an unrelenting drive to observe and represent the world around him.”
On view in the current show are examples of Goya’s large-scale oil cartoons and tapestries woven from them. For all its color-filled light-hearted frivolity, this work prompted the young artist to exercise keen powers of observation of the life around him and to develop painting techniques that stood him in good stead for the remainder of his career. As art historian Pierre Gassier has noted, Goya painted “the truth at a time when most artists were painting what was false and artificial.”
Goya chafed under the restrictions and lowly status of tapestry cartooning, and in 1780, having secured election to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando with a conventional painting of the Crucifixion, he began to attract commissions for portraits of the royal family and the aristocracy. An important development was gaining access to the royal collection, where he saw for the first time Velázquez’s fabled “Las Meninas” and other works by the Spanish realist that deeply influenced his art. Goya also viewed the monarch’s grand collection of works by Titian, Raphael, Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembrandt; today they are the pride of the Prado. “Las Meninas,” one of the most admired works in art history, still draws enormous crowds at the Prado.
Inspired by Velázquez’s example, Goya began to create simplified, accurate likenesses of sitters posed against uniform backgrounds. “The Marchioness of Pontejos” (circa 1786), an exception, radiates refined elegance amidst an idealized landscape that is reminiscent of Englishman Thomas Gainsborough. “The Family of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna” (1787-88) is an intimate, dignified rendering of his most important early patrons.
Goya’s later female portraits, often created with a Sargent-like flair, are infused with a similar sense of realism, empathy and appreciation for the subject’s personality. Among the highlights: “Maria Antonia Gonzaga, Marchioness of Villafranca” (1795) that conveys both the sitter’s serenity and strength; the handsome “Isabel de Porcel” (before 1805) dressed informally in black maja clothing and a richly dressed unidentified lady in “Young Lady Wearing a Mantilla and Basquina” (circa 1800-05).
Other standouts in the exhibition include “Senora Sabasa Garcia” (circa 1806-11), a simplified likeness of a pale, elegant young woman and two likenesses of an actress, “Antonia Zarate” (1805-06 and 1811), highlighting her grace and distant melancholy expression.
In a departure from his usual straightforward portrait format, in “The Marchioness of Villafranca Painting Her Husband” (1804), Goya showed a talented noble lady at home pausing at work on a likeness of her husband, who poses outside the confines of the canvas. It is an interesting subject, reflecting the emergence of women as trained artists at the dawn of the Enlightenment, but the picture somehow lacks the verve of other portraits of women.
Since it is from the host museum collection, “Portrait of Bartolomé Sureda” (1804-06) is included. It conveys the cocky self-assurance of the youngish director of the Royal Porcelain Manufactory. The canvas is paired with a superb, crisp rendering of Sureda’s French-born wife, Theresa-Louise (1803-04), also from the National Gallery’s collection, highlighting her good looks, fashionable garb and rigid posture.
A special treat in the exhibition is the huge (975/8 by 1921/8 inches) “The Family of the Infante Don Luis” (1794), from a museum in Parma, Italy, shown for the first time in this country. It depicts the brother of King Charles III with his much younger (by 32 years) wife and their children, seated surrounded by family members, acquaintances and retainers. Close examination reveals Goya himself, seated at his easel to the far left, and an elegant gentleman in profile (third from the right), thought to be the composer Luigi Boccherini.
Also on view in the show are two portraits of the infante’s lovely, pink-cheeked wife, “Maria Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas” (both 1783), then 24 years old and seven years into her marriage. Their infant daughter, who appears at the lower left of the family group portrait peering at Goya’s work, is also the subject of a charming likeness, dressed to the nines and posed in a dramatic outdoor setting, “Maria Teresa de Borbon y Vallabriga, later Countess of Chinchon” (1783).
On the basis of his official paintings of the royal family for which he is best known and the wide range of his upper-class sitters, Goya became established as the finest Spanish portraitist of his day. In 1786, at age 40, he was named one of a number of painters to the King and within three years, after his admirer, Charles IV assumed the throne, Goya became the chief court painter.
In 1792 apparent disaster struck when a prolonged illness left him permanently deaf. But his isolating misfortune seems to have focused and released the genius within that had been bottled up during his past, fuller contacts with the world. As art critic John Canaday once wrote, “A new Goya emerged — Goya the humane and bitter social observer, the scourging and despairing delineator of vice and cruelty, the fantasist whose pictured nightmares explored the most disparate realities.”
Within the Spanish court, Goya was exposed to extremes of human frailties. The king was at best a simpleton and perhaps an imbecile, and his queen, Maria Luisa of Parma, a thoroughly dissolute and unattractive person. Goya observed these repellant creatures — and longtime patrons — as individual figures for his brush, depicting them with such brutal candor that it is hard to fathom how his subjects tolerated them.
He painted large likenesses of the king and queen, including equestrian portraits, that manage to be flattering and pitiless at the same time, particularly the vice-ridden old queen. Goya’s mastery of portraiture, utilizing a full brush, brilliant palette and keen feeling for his subjects, is epitomized by “The Family of Charles IV” (1800). The prized treasure of the Prado, it is, alas, not in the current show.
In this enormous (11½ by 132½ inches) monument to the witless corruption of the Spanish monarchy, Goya depicted the cuckolded king and his ugly wife as beribboned, overdressed and pompous figures surrounded by 11 elegantly dressed but unappealing royal personages. The painting led French novelist Theophile Gautier to remark that the royal couple looked like “the corner baker and his wife after they won the lottery.” As Velázquez had done in “Las Meninas,” Goya included himself as a shadowy figure in the background laboring at his easel.
Astonishingly, Goya managed to retain his post at court unchallenged. Presumably a combination of his stature as a painter and the inability of his dull-witted patrons to recognize the truth of his caricaturish portraits prevented these works from being suppressed and Goya along with them. He was, in the final analysis, a survivor within the court.
Goya’s deafness was apparently accompanied by headaches and buzzing noises that frayed his nerves and must have driven him nearly to distraction. His tormented frame of mind and his increasingly jaundiced view of society’s shortcomings were reflected in a remarkable series of 80 etchings, “Los Caprichos (The Caprices)” that he completed in 1799. These graphic visions of witchcraft, greed, superstition, vanity and cruelty were based on the foibles he observed in a changing Spanish culture.
The “Caprices” on view in the Washington exhibition, focus on social satire, especially complex interactions between the sexes, replete with preening women, leering male suitors and evil-looking “celestinas” — older women, sometimes mothers, who offer younger women as commodities. In “Sacrifice of Interest” (1797-98), for example, an ugly hunchbacked suitor ogles a comely young woman, who turns away. Looking on are a smiling man (presumably a priest) and what we assume are her unattractive father and her mother, who hides her eyes in horror.
The “Caprices” etchings are masterpieces not only in their acerbic commentaries on human errors and vices, but in the delicacy and incisiveness of their composition. At best they puzzled and at worst shocked Goya’s contemporaries, who had never seen anything like them before. They pack a visual wallop to this day.
About the time Goya began work on the “Caprices,” he also started his famous but ambiguous relationship with the Duchess of Alba, the daring and spirited beauty who was the most vivid figure in Spanish society of her day. Although she seemed to have all of Madrid’s men at her feet, the 33-year-old aristocrat, who was soon widowed, welcomed to her home and country estate the middle-aged, stocky, stone deaf commoner from the provinces. We can speculate that Goya’s forceful personality and his lofty artistic reputation nurtured their liaison — whatever its details — from 1795 until the death of the Duchess in 1802.
This remarkable mutual trust between the lady and the artist, documented by his ready access behind the scenes on her properties, is suggested by several small paintings in the exhibition. “The Duchess of Alba and ‘La Beata'” (1795) is a playful image in which the Duchess — dressed in yellow and identified by her famous black ringlets — confronts her elderly, pious maid with a coral amulet, thought to be a protection against the “evil eye.”
One of Goya’s most important patrons, the Duchess commissioned a portrait of her husband, before he died, and several of herself. His 1797 likeness of the striking woman, in the collection of The Hispanic Society of America, shows an imperious lady garbed in the black dress of a maja, wearing two large rings. One bears the name “Alba,” and the other “Goya.” Staring straight at the viewer, she points to an inscription traced in the earth at her feet — “Solo Goya” –“Only Goya.”
Visitors to the Prado often make a beeline to Goya’s “Naked Maja” (1797-1800) and “Clothed Maja” (1800-05), whose fame is due both to their frank boudoir realism and the traditional belief that the Duchess of Alba posed for them. Stretched out on an upholstered couch with her hands clasped behind her head, the same curvaceous model stares provocatively at the viewer in both canvases. The translucent silk gown in the latter painting explicitly emphasizes the ample physical form that is fully revealed in the nude version.
The “Nude Maja” is a landmark in the prudish annals of Spanish painting. Yet, in many ways, the “Clothed Maja” outdoes it in terms of sensuality and erotic appeal. In any case, the naked version, at least, was scandalous in its day, when depictions of unclothed women were forbidden by the Spanish church. It is a real treat to be able to view them, side-by-side, in this show.
Most historians have concluded that this plump young woman with the come-hither look is not the Duchess of Alba. She may well have been one of the mistresses of Manuel Godoy, who rose to the position of Chief Minister as a result of his liaison with Queen Maria Luisa. The most powerful man in the country, Godoy owned the two “Majas” and hung them in a secret cabinet in his palace.
Goya’s portrait of a somewhat bloated Godoy (1801) strangely depicted lounging on a battlefield as he savors a victory, suggests the artist’s ambivalence about his pompous patron. (It is in the collection of the Royal Academy of San Fernando and not in this exhibition.)
In 1808, after Godoy’s fall from power, the daring paintings were confiscated, and in 1814 Goya had to answer for them to the Inquisition. It is unclear what happened thereafter, except that in some way the case was settled or the charges dropped. Even to jaded Twenty-first Century eyes, both “Majas” remain intensely sensual images.
Goya survived as first painter of the court during a time when Spain, in a state of political and social chaos, was losing its place as a great power. During the French occupation of Spain, beginning in 1808, Goya — an admirer of the French Enlightenment as well as a Spanish patriot — accepted commissions from Joseph Bonaparte, who had been put on the Spanish throne by his brother Napoleon. But the bloody French suppression of the native populace, especially during and after savage fighting in Madrid in May 1808, turned Goya against the occupiers.
When the French finally withdrew in 1814, Goya painted two memorable canvases — not in the current show — that immortalized the brave Spanish uprising and the brutal Napoleonic retaliation.
“Charge of the Mamalukes, May 2, 1808” (1814) records the furious clash of contorted bodies and rearing horses as Madrid citizens, armed with knives and stones, attacked Napoleon’s cavalry troops. In “Executions of the Third of May” (1814) Goya memorialized the dramatic moment the next night when, illuminated by a huge lantern, Spanish insurgents were executed by French firing squads. Viewed in the Prado, these works powerfully convey the artist’s outrage and horror at the havoc wreaked by soldiers in the heat of combat and the atrocities that often follow.
In a series of 80 small, compact etchings, “The Disasters of War,” created between 1810 and 1815, Goya depicted with even starker realism the brutal nature of war and how it turned men and women into butchers and beasts — as well as occasional heroes and heroines. Far from conventional portrayals of battle, Goya’s grim prints feature summary shootings, rapes, piles of corpses, mutilated bodies, hangings, civilians fleeing in panic and starving children. Accompanied by sardonic commentaries that underscored the senselessness of war, these etchings are unforgettable.
“What Courage!” (1810-14), one of the most famous images in the “Disasters of War” series, shows Augustina of Aragon heroically manning a cannon during the siege of Zaragoza in 1808.
For various reasons, including Goya’s likely conclusion that Spaniards would have little appetite for reminders of the horrors of war, the “Disasters” were not published until 1863, many years after they were made and after his death. They remain among the most scathing indictments of war ever created.
A number of Goya’s album drawings and lithographs in the National Gallery exhibition display inventive, often experimental, images. They range from playful relationships between men and women to an axe-wielding “Woman Murdering a Sleeping Man” (1815-20?). “Pygmalion and Galatea” (circa 1815-20), a brown wash on paper, recalls that familiar story.
Goya’s later print work included the “Disparates (Follies),” an enigmatic series of 22 etchings reflecting the artist’s fascination with devils and witches and his personal vision of omnipotent evil in the world. In one baffling image, “Feminine Folly” (circa 1816-19), a group of women toss puppets resembling men and donkeys in a blanket. It recalls Goya’s tapestry cartoon, “The Straw Mannikin,” executed a quarter century earlier.
Perhaps because of their puzzling subject matter, the “Follies” were never intended for publication and, indeed, they did not appear in prints until the 1850s.
In the last years of his life Goya returned to his lifelong interest in bullfighting, Spain’s national sport, in an animated print series entitled “La Tauromaquia.” Visitors to bullfights in Spain today find that the balletic — and ultimately gory — confrontations between matador and bull are little changed since Goya’s time.
In a large, late painting, “The Young Woman (The Letter)” (1813-20), Goya depicted a young upper-class woman reading a letter, perhaps from an admirer, as she and her parasol-toting maid stroll by a group of washerwomen at work. It reprises the artist’s longtime interest in juxtaposing different levels of Spanish society in the same picture.
In 1819, widowed and infirm, the 73-year-old painter purchased a villa across the river from Madrid, which came to be called “Qinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man).” He was soon stricken with a terrible illness that almost took his life and apparently exacerbated his demonic visions.
Goya covered the walls of his residence with weird, nightmarish paintings on a variety of macabre subjects. The 14 so-called “Black Paintings” — black in both tone and subject matter, relieved only by touches of bold color here and there — depict a bizarre world populated by lunatics, monsters, skeletons and witches, who howl, dance, struggle and feast on one another. Much admired by generations of artists and considered by some the greatest of Goya’s works, these idiosyncratic, and often troubling, paintings are now displayed in the Prado.
After the end of the French occupation, Ferdinand VII became Spain’s king. His despotic, repressive regime troubled Goya deeply and the monarch showed little interest in the work of the first painter of his court.
In 1824, the 78-year-old Goya went into voluntary exile in Bordeaux, France, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Although he was deaf, infirm and with failing eyesight, he sketched constantly, mastered the newly invented process of lithography, painted miniatures on ivory (such as “A Maja and Celestina,” 1824-25), and finished several accomplished oil paintings. In “The Milkmaid of Bordeaux” (circa 1827), one of his most tender canvases, he employed luminescent blues and greens to portray a dreamy young woman in a manner that presaged the work of the Impressionists later in the century.
Goya was still painting with vigor and skill when he died in Bordeaux in 1828, soon after his 82nd birthday. (American portrait painter Gilbert Stuart died the same year.) Today, Goya’s remains repose in Madrid’s church of San Antonio de la Florida, under the watchful gaze of angels and common folk he painted on the ceiling frescoes many years ago.
The turbulent times through which Goya lived and the torments he endured in his personal life contributed to the raw emotion and singular power of his art. He celebrated life at the same time that he explored its challenges and dark sides.
Although limited to his works involving women, the National Gallery show effectively offers an overview of Goya’s oeuvre. All the facets of his career that have earned him universal acclaim are on view: portraits, melancholy and menacing images, enigmatic and satirical works on paper, evocations of Spain’s struggles against oppression and sufferings in war, and renderings of the lives and customs of his countrymen. Because he conveyed timeless messages with incomparable skill and brutal candor, his art endures and continues to speak to us today.
The informative, fully illustrated exhibition catalog, edited by Tomlinson with contributions by four Goya scholars, is superb and will be coveted by fans of important world art. The softbound edition, published by the National Gallery, sells for $40. The clothbound edition, published by the National Gallery in association with Yale University Press, is priced at $65.
The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between Third and Ninth Streets, NW. For information, 202-737-4215.
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