Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes is often considered the last of the Old Masters. I have never been able to put him in the same class as Rembrandt or Vermeer, let alone the masters of the Renaissance, and this exhibition didn’t change my mind.
It is the first major exhibition of Goya’s portraits ever held. It was, according to the audioguide, ten years in the making as the curators negotiated the loan of works from major international galleries and many private owners, and I think we should be grateful for their efforts in bringing together an unparalleled 71 portraits, ranging from wall-sized commissions to tiny sketches and a set of family miniatures – all in one place as never before.
You can read Goya’s biography on his Wikipedia page. What was new to me was the detail the exhibition provided about Spanish politics of the second half of the 18th century and how Goya’s life intertwined with it:
After the glory years at the height of its empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain had sunk by the 18th century into being a cultural and economic backwater. During the later 1700s a group of liberal thinkers and politicians, taking their lead from the Enlightenment in France, wanted to modernise Spain and Goya very much befriended and took part in this group.
At the same time he was fiercely ambitious in his chosen career. In the 1780s King Charles III appointed Goya Painter to the King, despite its name, a relatively lowly position. In 1789, following the death of Charles III and the advent of Charles IV, Goya was promoted to Court Painter. And in 1799 Goya was finally appointed First Court Painter ie top dog. Via persistent lobbying and creating a network of aristocratic contacts, he had arrived.
But he did so as the continent of Europe sank ever deeper into prolonged war. By 1804 Spain, allied with Napoleonic France, was at war with Britain. In 1808 Napoleon’s troops seized major Spanish cities and Napoleon appointed his brother, Joseph, to the position of king of Spain. Guerilla resistance to the French invaders and their reprisals spurred Goya to create his terrifying Disasters of War etchings.
However, the French were liberals after Goya’s own heart: for example they abolished the Inquisition with its legal right to torture and execute anyone who had insulted the dignity of Spain or the Catholic church. Goya made many contacts within the French regime and painted some of its members.
The Duke of Wellington portraits
But in 1812 the Duke of Wellington led the British army to victory over the French and expelled them from Spain. Goya was commissioned to paint the Duke’s portrait and it is included here and – seen close to – is a much more rushed and bodged looking affair than I remembered (look at the hanging right eye, look at the ineptly done mouth). Compare and contrast Goya’s amateurish work with the superb portrait of Wellington by British painter Sir Thomas Lawrence just three years later – a brilliantly penetrating, superbly finished and completely convincing portrait.
Alas for Goya and Spanish liberals, the restored Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, turned out to be as reactionary as the soon-to-be-restored Bourbons in France. He swiftly restored the Inquisition, its spies and secret police and Goya had to undergo inquisition and ‘rehabilitation’ for his earlier contacts with the French regime. Doubts about his loyalty persisted and in 1824 Goya was forced first to go into hiding and then to flee to France, to join the community of Spanish emigrés in Bordeaux, where he died in 1828.
I thought the great majority of the portraits were amateurish, badly composed and badly executed. Even the audio commentary had to concede there are elements of ‘naivety’, ‘awkwardness’, ‘inelegance’ in many of the paintings. He was nearly 40 when he painted the group portrait below. The composition is clumsy. The commentary points out the table only has one leg. Perspective and colour emphasise flatness and not depth. Some of the faces seem in a different plane or level than others. The old bloke at the table is very badly done.
Here is Goya, aged 40, doing a portrait of the king – the king – which looks like a cartoon and makes the king look like a rascally yokel. I don’t understand how this can be said to be the work of a ‘master’ of painting. The digs, the gun, the boots are typical of the period. But the face?
The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children is a terrible picture, isn’t it? The stagey pose, the inability to draw the human figure or face, the ineptness of the children’s poses and faces. This is one of the exhibition’s coups, a loan from the prestigious Prado in Madrid. It looks like some of the primitive American colonial art I saw at the Brooklyn Museum last year.
Below is a well-known self portrait from the 1790s. The commentary points out that the window may or may not have existed in this form in Goya’s studio, but it is anyway symbolic of the light flooding in from the 18th century Enlightenment. Maybe so, but close up you can see the shakiness of the brush strokes throughout and the indecisiveness of the features.
The Duchess of Alba was an important patron and the work below is a famous painting, chosen to head the National Gallery’s twitter feed. But the background looks unreal, there is no connection between the background and the figure dumped in it and her face is dire, oddly modelled and blank. She is pointing at an inscription in the sand which says ‘Solo Goya’ ie ‘Only Goya’, which sentimental old art historians used to think proved she and Goya were lovers. More realistic modern critics think it is simply a reference to Goya considering himself the best portrait painter in Spain.
Charles III died in 1788 and his successor, Charles IV, promoted Goya to be court painter. Goya, presumably keen to display his absolute powers, produced this portrait of the king as hunter. A reproduction makes it look much more finished than it is in real life, especially the repainting around the dog’s head to make him look more adoringly at his master.
The portrait of the Marchioness of Santa Cruz reflects the early 19th century fashion for portraying sitters – generally women – as classical personifications. Here the marchioness, with her hand on a lute, is portraying a classical muse. This reproduction smooths out the rough brush strokes and makes the silk dress and fabric of the couch look well done; they look a lot less so in real life. Her face is as blankly expressionless, as bereft of life, as the Duchess of Alba’s.
After the defeat of Napoleon, King Ferdinand VII was restored to the Spanish throne and brought back all the reactionary institutions of his forebears. Despite Goya’s known sympathies for the French regime, Ferdinand kept him on as court painter, though appointing a more traditionalist painter (Vicente López) to accompany him. It is hard to understand how a proud and dignified king can possibly have accepted this official portrait from Goya without insisting it was burned. It makes him look like a tubby cretin.
Some good paintings
It is unfortunate that the first room, full of early works, rather overwhelms you with how poor Goya was as a draughtsman and painter. Thus prepared it was easy to see faults in everything which followed. But I was pleasantly surprised to see about half a dozen works I thought were good, and one or two that might be very good, that almost stand comparison with Gainsborough, Reynolds or Thomas Lawrence.
This portrait of the Count of Altamira has a unity of colour and composition which I found uncommon in most of the other exhibits, although the audio commentary chose it as an example of the way that Goya almost always has something quirky or ungainly or clumsy in his paintings (I couldn’t agree more). In this case the chair is evidently too small for the table and the sitter’s body isn’t quite sitting on it, but sort of hovering just above.
The portrait of the Countess-Duchess of Benavente reminded me of Gainsborough. She was, apparently, an intellectual in her day, famous for her salon, but the commentary went on mostly about her hair and how the four large folds at the back were probably created using a sort of cardboard onto which human hair was stuck before the assemblage was attached to the back of her head with hairpins. Once they’d drawn attention to this area it became impossible not to notice the way the hat isn’t really sitting on her head, but looks tacked on behind it.
Others I liked include:
- Don Valentin Bellvís de Moncada y Pizarro (1795) Cartoon face, but a striking cartoon
- Thérèse Louise de Sureda (1804) The face has the anonymous roundedness of the era, and the silk jacket and chair lining don’t stand up to really close scrutiny. Still, a striking image.
- General Nicolas Philippe Guye (1810) One of Napoleon’s most successful generals, sent to put down the Spanish resistance. The pose is stiff but the overall effect conveys a real sense of character.
- Cardinal Luis María de Borbóny Vallabriga (1800) A typical stiff, implausible pose, but there was something about the youthful face.
- The Duke of Carlos (1815) Chief Minister of the reactionary Ferdinand VII, from the feet upwards this is a believable and impressive portrait of power.
The exhibition very much follows the highs and lows in Goya’s personal life, dwelling on the illness in the 1790s which left him profoundly deaf, and referring to the albums of cartoons and sketches in which he kept satirical images of the court and of humanity in general. It has two rooms devoted to portraits of family and close friends which, as with anyone’s life story, introduce an element of pathos.
- Antonia Zárate (1805) A close friend of the artist, her face has the same blankness of many other female portraits, there’s something wrong with the top lip and the dress hangs oddly on her bust and shoulders but still, a striking pose.
- Friar Juan Fernández de Rojas (1800?) A personal friend of the artist and progressive theologian, this is one of the few really persuasive portraits in the show.
- Martín Zapater (1797) Goya’s lifelong friend and correspondent, this portrait has more depth than all the kings put together.
The commentary told us about his relationship with Dr Arrieta, who nursed Goya through a severe illness in 1819. These and the other moving stories about his wife’s death, about the loss of most of his children, may all be true and raise some sympathy. But surely none of that stops Goya’s painting of himself and Arrieta from being anything other than embarrassingly amateurish. The idea of fellowship, care and support may be humane and worthy – but the execution…
I am grateful to the National Gallery for assembling all these works in one place and allowing us to take a really detailed overview of Goya’s career. But I would expect a ‘master’ to have created at least one ‘masterpiece’, a work you can only marvel at, a work that seems created by angels, that you could stand anyone in front of and say, ‘There! That is Western Art at its finest’. Although there are quite a few ‘interesting’ portraits and a handful of fairly good ones, there are no paintings here that take your breath away.
- Goya: The Portraits continues at The National Gallery until 10 January 2016
- Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album @ The Courtauld Gallery
- Goya’s Disasters of War Wikipedia article
- Guardian review by Laura Cumming
- Guardian review by Adrian Searle
- London Review of Books review by TJ Clark
- Telegraph review by Mark Hudson
Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions
- Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck (August 2016)
- Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art (February 2016)
- Every room in the National Gallery (December 2015)
- Goya: The Portraits (November 2015)
- Inventing Impressionism (May 2015)
- Making Colour (September 2014)
- Veronese (May 2014)
- Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 (January 2014)