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The Secrets Behind Goya's Portraits
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The Secrets Behind Goya's Portraits

Picture of Kaja Kozak
Updated: 13 December 2015
Many people know Goya for ‘The Third of May, 1808’ (1814), the dark subject matter he painted in his later years, and his Caprichos. However, it is portraits that make up a third of Goya’s output. Goya was regarded as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns, serving as both a commentator on and chronicler of the era, who took the genre of portraiture to new heights.

During his 80 years, Goya witnessed a series of dramatic events that changed the course of European history and the individuals who led and survived them. Goya: The Portraits spans his entire artistic career, from his early beginnings at the court of Madrid to his appointment as First Court Painter to Charles IV. He was a favourite portraitist of the Spanish aristocracy, seeing beyond the appearances of those who sat for him and subtly revealing character and psychology with paint. The exhibition explores the difficult period under Joseph Bonaparte’s rule and the accession to the throne of Ferdinand VII, before concluding with Goya’s final years of self-imposed exile in Bordeaux, France.

The exhibition shows 70 of Goya’s most outstanding portraits from both private and public collections and has been ten years in the making. Some of the works on display are rarely lent, and some have never been exhibited publicly before. The exhibition not only shows paintings on canvas but also miniatures on copper and black and red chalk drawings. Goya: The Portraits is organised chronologically and thematically through 7 rooms; while most would probably be expecting a stuffy exhibition of Old Masters portraits, what makes Goya unique is the psychoanalytical approach he uses to depict his sitters. These portraits are littered with stories, rumours, and secrets.

Room 1: The First Portraits

Goya didn’t begin painting portraits until he was 37; instead, he focused his time on religious art and designing tapestry. Despite his late start, his patrons were some of the wealthiest and most renowned individuals in Spain.

‘Self Portrait,’ about 1780

There are 47 years that lie between the first self portrait in the show, completed when Goya was in his late 20s, and the last, the poignant ‘Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta,’ painted when he was 74 years old. It is believed he may have painted this work to mark his admission to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando. Goya himself was an individual that liked to enjoy life, liked to drink, liked social occasions, and was a passionate painter.

‘The Count of Floridablanca,’ 1783

This was Goya’s first commissioned portrait, which allowed him to enter the elite circles of Spain. Though the portrait is beautifully rendered, the viewer can see that Goya is trying just a little too hard. He crams the portrait with details referencing the Count’s many responsibilities as First Minister of State and Protector of the Royal Academy of San Fernando and has included a portrait of the king at the top right. He also squeezed himself in at the bottom left, humbly presenting the Count with a painting. One can see Goya’s ambition, almost as if he was desperate to become an official court painter.

‘The Infante Don Luis de Borbón,’ 1783

Don Luis was the womanising brother of Charles III. After a series of shameful events, he was banished to the countryside and was forced to marry. An inscription on the back of the picture states that it took three hours to paint on the 11th of September, 1783.

‘María Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas,’ 1783

This is the portrait of the beautiful woman that was unfortunate enough to have to marry the Infante Don Luis de Borbón, who was 32 years her senior. Goya painted her during the summer months he spent at the Infante’s court in 1783. His sensitive depiction of her eyes and fine features projects his affection for her.

The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón, 1783 – 1784

This is Goya’s first masterpiece; large in scale, the portrait is an example of Goya’s ambition as a painter. The painting depicts the Infante family seated around a table. While María Teresa gets her hair done, Don Luis plays a game of solitaire surrounded by guests. In order to keep his brother and his family off the throne, Don Luis’s wife and children were not allowed to take the Borbón name. Here you can see that Goya really gets to know his sitters; there is an obvious intimacy between them. Goya puts himself into this portrait again because he wants to demonstrate himself as a court painter – think Las Meninas by Velázquez.

The composition is centred around María Teresa in a special informal moment which slightly offsets the portrait tradition. Among the crowd is María Teresa’s hairdresser – who the curator believes can be a sort of analogy to Goya, someone who can permeate inner circles, who knows the individual and the gossip of the day. The others, apart from the children, are largely unknown individuals, and much speculation surrounds who they are; some even say that María’s lover is present among the throng. Keep the little boy in blue in mind; he will become the patron who commissions Goya’s famous painting ‘The Third of May, 1808.’

Room 2: Portrait Painter to the Spanish Aristocracy

For this new generation of Spanish statesmen, who invited Goya to paint their families as well as themselves, the artist’s portraiture was excitingly modern, in tune with enlightened thinking and developments in portraiture abroad, yet still rooted in the art of the Spanish Golden Age. In 1786, Goya was appointed painter to the King.

Painting 9. ‘The Count of Altamira,’ 1787 and Painting 10. ‘The Countess of Altamira with her Daughter María Agustina,’ 1787-1788

The Countess of Altamira with her Daughter María Agustina‘ has never been lent internationally from the Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and has come to Europe for the very first time to be reunited with her husband, ‘The Count of Altamira.’ It was shortly after completing his portrait of the Countess that Goya was appointed court painter to Charles IV, King of Spain.

Painting 17. ‘The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children,’ 1788

This is another early masterpiece in which Goya strove to create a modern portrait for one of the most enlightened families in Spain. In this portrait, Goya creates a sense of animated informality, looking more closely at British portraiture like that of Gainsborough. There are many unusual things happening in this painting for the time. The Duke and Duchess were influenced by French philosophy, in particular that of Rousseau, and decided to go the French way. They raised their own children rather than hiring someone, which is why you can see the tender care and love of parent and child; the Duke holds the hand of his daughter tenderly while the boys play with their toys. The Duchess was a radical woman; in addition to keeping her own name after marriage, she was immensely well-read and a radical thinker. Here she appears to hold a book to distinguish her as the intellectual equal of her husband.

The Duchess was also a great patron of the arts, employing both artists and composers; she commissioned six scenes of witchcraft from Goya, satirising Church corruption and the backwardness of Spanish society. Nearby you can also see her portrait, with the Duchess’s modern hair and wardrobe. You can see her wealth in the ostrich feathers that she wears. Goya was incredibly skilled at capturing the fashion of the day. If you look at all his sitters, there is an incredible attention to detail in their wardrobe. You can see the embroidery and the lace as Goya had a great understanding of fabrics and how they might feel on your skin. That was his skill as a painter: his portraits make the viewer believe he knows the sitter’s personality just by looking at them.

Room 3: Portraying The Spanish Enlightenment

The 1790s was a time of momentous change in Spain. Following the French Revolution of 1789, Spain went from violent, anti-French sentiments to being allies with its neighbour. Many of Goya’s friends who belonged to the intellectual movement known as the Spanish Enlightenment took government office. It was also between the years 1792 and 1793 that Goya contracted an illness that left him completely deaf for life. Although he learned sign language, and a few of his close friends did, too, his portraits took on a new significance.

Painting 20. ‘Self Portrait before an Easel,’ 1792 – 1795

Here, Goya is in his late 40s and depicts himself painting in an embroidered jacket and an unusual hat. The hat was actually made to carry candles in order to add the final highlights to his pictures at night, which added additional vibrancy and life to his paintings. Since it is daylight in this self-portrait, the candles are removed.

Painting 22. ‘Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos,’ 1798 and Painting 23. ‘Francisco de Saavedra,’ 1798

When placed side by side for the first time, the viewer may believe these two were intended as a pair. Gaspar was a celebrated writer and reformer, and here he is depicted in the manner of Melancholy, an allegorical figure associated with intellectual genius. He sits lost in thought with a statue of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, behind him. Gaspar was a close friend of Goya’s and even learned to sign to be able to communicate better with the painter. The portrait of Francisco de Saavedra serves as a stark contrast to his counterpart. Francisco, Spain’s Minister of Finance, is alert and ready to spring into action, the work itself visibly painted rapidly. Recent technical examination suggests that Saavedra’s head was painted first at a separate sitting, with the rest of the picture completed later at speed.

Room 4: Official Portrait Painter to the Spanish Court

On October 31st, 1799, Goya was made First Court Painter to Charles IV, who had recently ascended to the throne. It was the first time since Diego Velázquez that a Spaniard had held the post. Goya wanted to present the royal couple as warm and approachable human beings. The portraits in this room are as much about the sitters as they are about the fashion of the day.

Painting 31. ‘María Luisa wearing a Mantilla,’ 1799

Goya presents the Queen in a warm and friendly manner. Though she had been aged by 13 childbirths and the loss of her teeth, rather than depicting her as haggard, Goya paints her with sympathy, filing out her sunken cheeks and making much of her beautiful arms, which she was proud of. He also details the magnificence of her Spanish dress and the Mantilla, a long laced black veil. She, like many other wealthy women, had imported lace from Belgium, spending a fortune and garnering criticism.

Painting 32. ‘The Duchess of Alba,’ 1797

She was the hated rival of the Queen and, fittingly, hangs across the room from her. She was one of Goya’s most celebrated patrons and one of the highest-ranking women in Spain after the Queen. Married at 12, she was beautiful, famous, willful, and eccentric, with a fiery temper which is evident from this portrait, as she stands in an imperious position pointing to what reads ‘solo Goya’ – only Goya. Some thought this was proof that the two were lovers, but it’s more likely that this just stood as a sign that it was only Goya who was her painter. In this portrait, she looks directly at the viewer, which was unusual for a woman, but it also shows us the close relationship between her and Goya. Their relationship was on the unusual side; one day the Duchess barged into Goya’s studio demanding that he do her makeup.

Painting 33. ‘The Count of Fernán Núñez,’ 1803

Goya presents the Count, a wealthy, 24-year-old courtier, like a dashing figure. Most of the detail goes into painting the Count’s fashionable dress, from his bicorn hat and the high linen stock about his neck to his tight pantaloons and Hessian riding boots. The pantaloons were a popular fashion trend among men; as the trend grew the pantaloons got tighter and tighter to the point where they caused excruciating physical pain. The Count’s swagger pose is reminiscent of British portraiture, particularly that of Thomas Lawrence.

Room 5: Liberals and Despots

In 1808 Charles the IV abdicated the throne in favour of his son Ferdinand. Napoleon seized this moment of transition and weakness to place his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne. During this time, major events that ensued: the abolition of the Inquisition, guerrilla warfare, and hunger, until the Duke of Wellington recaptured Spain and restored the monarchy. Goya’s skills as a portraitist helped him survive these troubled times.

Painting 39. ‘Juan Antonio Llorente,’ 1810 – 1812

A close friend of Goya’s, Juan was brought into the government by Joseph Bonaparte to help dissolve the dreadful Inquisition; Goya hated the Inquisition and satirised it in his drawings. Juan stands painted in contrast to Inquisition priests, in black clothing with a single ornament, the Royal Order of Spain, an honour created by Joseph Bonaparte. Goya received the same medal in March 1811, which he never wore.

Painting 41. Ferdinand VII in Court Dress, 1814-1815

Following the restoration of the Spanish monarchy in 1814, Goya began to paint the members of the royal court again; he was nearly 70 and deaf when he painted this portrait. His technique here is radical; the canvas is full of thick impastos, blobs, dots, and drags of paint that depict the gaudy brocade and details of the king’s robes, almost like a Jackson Pollock painting. Goya wasn’t Ferdinand’s biggest fan, which is evident in his portrait, as he made him look like a pompous fool with the order of the Golden Fleece on his collar. Ferdinand restored the Inquisition and believed in the Divine Right of his kingship. His return to the throne caused Goya great anxiety; there were numerous executions, and Goya had to go through a court trial to clear himself. Ferdinand on the other hand was not a fan of Goya’s work and hired a more tradition portrait painter, Vicente López, with whom Goya would have to share the post of First Painter to the King. Talk about a demotion after years of hard work…

Room 6: Artists and Friends: Goya’s Inner Circle

Goya was great at developing relationships with people and often kept in contact and remained friends with people he knew since he was a young child. These portraits are less diplomatic and more sharply observant, honest, affectionate, inventive, and witty. After he became deaf, portraiture served even more as a way to create a special bond between him and the sitter.

Painting 49. ‘The Marchioness of Santa Cruz,’ 1805

This is the little, 4-year-old girl we saw earlier in the Osuna family portrait (17). Around the time of this painting, Goya was 60 and had stayed in touch with the family for years. Out of all the portraits displayed, this one appears to be painted in the most unique manner. Dressed in the latest fashion and holding a lyre, the Marchioness appears as a modern muse. Here, Goya echoes a Europe-wide trend of depicting young women as classical personifications, but his is startling and unique. This is a portrait of trust; the Marchioness is suggestive and erotic but classical and realistic, and allows Goya to capture her this way. This was very different from anything painted in Spain at this time and was quite revolutionary.

Painting 52. ‘Martin Zapater,’ 1797

Zapater was Goya’s best friend and one of the people he loved and cherished the most. A lot of what we know about Goya comes from the correspondence exchanged between the two friends. Martin Zapater was a wealthy banker/merchant whom Goya knew since they were children. Goya depicts his friend’s large nose and bright eyes with remarkable immediacy and sets the canvas in an oval frame usually reserved for loved ones. When Goya was ill, he had a portrait of Martin by his bedside, which gave him comfort. Goya wrote, ‘I have the delightful impression of being with you – ah, my dear soulmate. I couldn’t believe that friendship could reach me at this time of suffering.’ In another letter written to Martin, Goya states, ‘Adios, adios, and until we meet I am not nor shall be content. Yours more than ever, Francisco de Goya.’ You can also see on the portrait the words, ‘A su amigo’… to his friend.

Room 7: The Private Goya: Family Portraits

Goya was passionately devoted to his family. He and his wife, Josefa Bayeu, had seven children, but only one, Francisco Javier, survived until adulthood. He was the apple of Goya’s eye, and Goya painted his son and his family extensively. In 1819, Goya suffered an illness that nearly killed him. After some turbulent times in Spain, in 1824, the 78-year-old finally settled in Bordeaux, France. Settling among other exiled Spanish liberals, Goya remained a prolific and ambitious painter, with an appetite for life that impressed his friends. Portraits were a way to communicate for Goya, to show people his love and admiration for them. Goya died at the age of 82, on April 16th, 1828, after suffering a stroke in Bordeaux.

Painting 64. ‘Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta,’ 1820

This is a portrait of the man who saved Goya’s life. Here, Goya re-imagines the scene of the illness that nearly killed him. There are disturbing faces lurking in the background; are they meant to be hallucinations he experienced while ill? The portrait depicts a tender moment between him and his doctor; you can see the doctor kindly attending to and holding Goya, with a concerned look on his face. This portrait was meant to be a thank you to Doctor Arrieta and the lengthy inscription below the image reads, ‘Goya thankful, to his friend Arrieta: for the skill and care with which he saved his life during his short and dangerous illness, endured at the end of 1819, at seventy-three years of age. He painted it in 1820.’ After this incident, Goya found a new lease on life, and the next eight years would be very productive for him.

Painting 71. ‘Mariano Goya y Goicoechea,’ about 1827

Mariano was Goya’s only grandson, and you can feel the grandfatherly love in this portrait; it was made during the painter’s final trip to Madrid to tend to his financial affairs. He shows his grandson as a young gentleman of quality and wealth, which must have made him proud. However Mariano turned out to be a reckless individual who went bankrupt spending Goya’s fortune. This is the last known work to be painted by Goya before his death.

The National Gallery’s Goya: The Portraits constitutes the best possible survey of Goya’s portraits, with 71 works on display. Viewers can see a wide range of development in his painterly technique and his wide array of sitters, from monarchs to family. Goya was one of the best and most observant portraitists of his time, capturing the personality and psychology of each individual sitter, their weaknesses, fears, wisdom, foolishness, resilience, melancholy, and secrets. It is not only the sitter’s head that we get into, but Goya’s, as well. His self-portraits especially leave an open window into Goya’s own happiness, sadness, illness, and even madness. Goya’s portraits can be seen as fantastic biographies of interesting individuals, riddled with stories and symbolism that will entice every viewer.

Exhibition hours: Daily 10AM – 6PM (last admission 5:15PM), Friday until 9PM (last admission 8:15PM)

The exhibition is open from October 7th, 2015 – January 10th, 2016.

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, UK +44 020 7747 2885