Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) ranks with Velasquez at the pinnacle of Spanish painting. Best known today for his compelling depictions of the brutality of war and the disturbing intensity of his images of witches, he was also a prolific portrait picture. It is these portraits which are the subject of this large and expansive exhibition.
Goya came to portrait painting in his 30s but quickly established a reputation which led him to painting many of the senior aristocracy of Spain and the Royal Family, becoming First Court Painter to the King, the highest position available to an artist in Spain. Yet despite his close ties with royalty and aristocracy he was not simply an establishment figure. It is clear from both his progressive approach to painting and from the other people who were in his circle and who he painted that he was imbued with enlightenment thinking and, indeed, when Spain moved markedly to the right after the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbons he was forced into exile in France.
The current exhibition takes a comprehensive look at his portrait paintings from his first known portrait to his last. It shows his range and reach but also, inevitably, highlights a lack of consistency across the work. Some of this is simply him developing his skills over his life; some a demonstration that it is hard to make every piece of work to the same standard.
At his best though he is quite extraordinary in his ability to reveal the character in front of you. His best paintings were both writing history and predicting the future. Consider for example the three portraits of Spanish Kings in the show, Charles III, Charles IV and Ferdinand VII. The two Charles’s are painted in hunting dress clearly enjoying the pleasures of the countryside. They are portrayed not as figures of authority but as genial old buffers far from the pressures of duty. You only need to look at these pictures to know that Spain lacked leadership and was going nowhere. One look at these portraits and it is easy to see why Napoleon thought Spain ripe for plucking, and the Spanish monarchy time-expired. Look then at the portrait of Ferdinand, the Bourbon King restored when Wellington cleared Napoleon from Spain. It is hard to imagine a less flattering portrait than this; he is ugly, twisting, determined to flaunt his authority and power. You do not need to know any history to know that this man is politically reactionary and autocratic, and that it was going to end badly for Spain!
Given his closeness to the centre of the Spanish establishment, Ifind these pictures extraordinarily revealing of uncomfortable inner truths which could not have been lost on a contemporary audience. These are not flatter portraits or state propaganda. The same is the case with a compelling portrait of Ferdinand Guillemardet, painted in 1798. Guillemardet was the new French ambassador to Spain, representing Republican France and hence a deeply threatening presence in a country which was still ruled by an absolute monarch. Yet Goya’s portrait shows a man of confident swagger and revels in the display of the Republican tricolore that makes a major focal point of the picture. The picture seems entirely sympathetic to the cause Guillemardet represents, yet is painted by the man who became First Court Painter to Spain within a year. I would love to know more about how Goya handled his politics.
The revealing of inner feelings is also demonstrated very powerfully in his portrait of Wellington taken after a series of savagely bloody battles led to him liberating Madrid. Here is man with sunken eyes, recovered neither physically nor psychologically from what he has just experienced. It is so much more sympathetic and compelling than a military swagger portrait.
As I said above, there is unevenness in this show and I thought that was most clear in his portraits of women. Some of these were triumphs: his portrait of his friend Antonia Zarate (shown at the top of this piece) was to me the highlight of the exhibition, showing a woman as a confident, powerful individual, and picking out the details of her dress and lace so well you felt you could touch it. Equally, the well known picture of the Duchess of Alba is even more compelling ‘in person’, than in its many reproductions. His pictures (not shown in the exhibition) of the clothed and naked Maja also demonstrate his ability to master the representation of the human figure.
But on the other hand, he doesn’t get it right. His portrait of the Marchioness of Santa Cruz, for example, painted in a new-classical style and holding a lyre, simply does not work for me. She looks stiff, unnatural and uncomfortable rather than the sensuous muse she is seeking to be.
Overall though, despite the occasional lapse, Goya is demonstrably a painter of the very highest order. And he knew it too. It requires the very highest confidence in your own ability to thrust yourself into your own canvas as Goya did from the very beginning: whether by creating portraits of others in which the artist himself features or in writing on the sand beneath the feet of the Duchess of Alba ‘Goya solo’. The latter has sometime been interpreted as a declaration of love between painter and subject, but that is now dismissed. But what it clearly remains is a declaration of the most extraordinary self-confidence; I alone am capable of producing such work. It is a self-confidence which the passage of time shows to have been well-founded.