Goya portraits 

Goya portraits – at the National Gallery. As usual, I get there (if at all) in the last week, and it’s a popular exhibition, and the NG foyer is crowded and the gallery even more so. Curiously, maybe not surprisingly, we’re an older crowd, the tourists are next door in the main gallery – we are I think a mainly British bunch. One downside of crowds – you can’t get close, so checking out on dots and daubs and brushstokes can be anti-social.

There’s performance art of a kind, certainly noise, emanating from Trafalagar Square outside the gallery, and neon shines in the evening light from the ’empty’ fourth plinth. Inside I’m struck by one of the captions in the little (almost image-less) guide the gallery provides for visitors. Goya’s painting of the Dowager Marchionness of Villafranca is ‘a moving demonstration of his ability to portray old age with respect and sympathy’. She was 61 when her portrait was painted. Not even 64. Zooks! Maybe that’s what I’m missing out on – respect and sympathy.

There’s a risk the younger generations are losing touch with the history of art – and of more than just art. Goya in a Self Portrait before an Easel has a hat adapted ‘to carry candles in order to add the final highlights to his pictures at night’. Maybe we need a few more details of this kind – life for Goya and in any studio was anything but staid.

Goya would be a good subject for a biopic, that would help – with his wonderful connections as painter to the court and king on the one hand, and on the other, his ability to survive infighting and faction, Napoleon’s invasion, the restoration of the monarchy, and a deadly anti-liberal reaction under Ferdinand VII, when he escaped to exile in France. And there’s his agonised personal response to Spain, to war and to the world revealed in his two series of etchings, the Caprichos and the Disasters of War.

He was called on to paint a triumphant (though he hardly looks that way) Wellington in 1812. As ever, he was in the right place. Beside the oil painting there’s a revealing preliminary sketch, with the general looking hollow-eyed and drained.

Goya’s ‘Family of the Infante Luis de Borbon’ is based on Velasquez’s Las Meninas, his group portrait of the Spanish royal family in the 1630s. There’s a powerful realism in the Goya portrait as there is in the Velasquez, and if you’ve seen Picasso’s paintings based on Las Meninas in Barcelona, that adds another dimension. There can be something obsessive about Spanish art. In their black mantillas the ladies, duchesses and countesses, live in their own world and even a radical such as the Countess-Duchess of Benavente is portrayed in a splendid hat, dress and powdered wig.

A few years late the Countess co-commissioned from Goya ‘six scenes of witchcraft, which satirised church corruption and the backwardness of Spanish society’. Even when the reformers lost power Goya kept his connections around court. Government ministers sat for him, including the minister of finance and one Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, who rejoiced in the title (a poor translation?) of Minister of Grace and Justice. How did grace come to be in his portfolio, I’d like to know. A better post for an archbishop.

Many ministers and courtiers were his friends and that didn’t change despite a serious illness that left him deaf for the last thirty years of his life. What the exhibition doesn’t and can’t address given its specific remit is the darker side of Goya’s imagination, the satires of the Caprichos, his rage against war in the Disasters, the bleak images of the Black Paintings. It’s the starkest of divides between the public and the personal. The former about status and friendship, the latter a harrowing personal journey.

If you were a friend (and not just those in high places) you were likely to get your portrait painted, and the portraits are full of character, and a few warts, and affection. They’re people you’d want to know. An architect, a master gilder, a printmaker, and a radical priest or two. In later years when Spain implodes and Goya turns inward there are few portraits of friends, though he did survive, just, as First Painter to the King.

‘People you’d want to know’ –  there’s a full-length portrait of the Marchioness de Santa Cruz reclining, dressed in the latest flimsy fashion, and with a lyre – a very modern muse for her time. I’d like to have met her. And nearby there’s Goya’s friend, the actress, Antonia Zarate. She’s dressed, with a fine lace mantilla, like an aristocrat, but closer inspection reveals a tiny downturn of lip and an ordinary humanity beneath the ritual glamour. In ordinary attire she’d have been fun, and a little wild  – I guess, I can only speculate!

Sometimes he painted himself into his portraits – as in the family portrait of the Infante family, and in the very grand portrait of the Duchess of Alba the duchess points to the ground and the words, ‘Solo Goya’, (Only Goya). She must have connived at this. ‘The idea that this proves that she and the artist were lovers has now been set aside,’ we’re told, rather primly.

Some of the names of his subjects are to conjure with: Cardinal Luis Maria de Borbon y Vallabriga (son of the Infante and ‘raised within the church’ – doesn’t sound as if he had much choice but to be a cardinal) and Don Valentin Bellvís de Mancada y Pizarro. I feel my parents shortchanged me – and indeed I did my own children. We could have added a bit in here and there.

And finally there’s a portrait of his friend Cean Bermudez, an art historian and print collector, who ‘shared a number of Rembrandt etchings with Goya when he was working on Los Caprichos’. A year ago I was in the same gallery, at the National  Gallery’s memorable, life-changing Rembrandt exhibition. Rembrandt painted old age like no other, but Goya has his own remarkable Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta: he looks near death, and there’s an honesty about the two figures, Goya and the doctor, which is startling. A few years later, and near his actual death, he sketched in crayon a simple self-portrait, Aun aprendo (I am still learning). It’s shown in the little guidebook, not in the exhibition: hunched with a long white beard and two sticks he is ‘still learning’.

Now this guy really does deserve our ‘respect and sympathy’  – he died aged 82, in 1828.

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