Goya: The Portraits – Review

Charles IV in Hunting Dress, 1799

Bella White looks at the National Gallery London’s exhibition Goya: The Portraits and traces the history of Spain’s ‘Enlightened Painter’.

Ten years in the making, Goya: The Portraits at the National Gallery, London, traces the development of one of Spain’s most celebrated artists, whose skills as a portraitist have been described as a ‘great gift to Western Art’; a man who described himself as an old Titian, Spain’s ‘Enlightened Painter’: Francisco de Goya y Lucientes.

Hailing from rural Aragón, a landlocked region in northeastern Spain, Goya was rejected twice from the Royal Academy of Madrid, the traditional arts institution of the time, before sponsoring his own trip to Italy to study the Old Masters and Classical Antiquity. Essentially, he is a self-trained artist who established his career as a religious artist and tapestry designer until 1783 when, at the age of 37, he received his first major portrait commission from the Count of Floridablanca.

His engagement with the Enlightenment movement represented a way of reforming Spanish society, during one of the country’s most tumultuous periods, in a way that Spaniards embraced.

Although Goya is perhaps best known internationally for his nightmarish depictions of the horrors of war, this exhibition celebrates his equally brilliant talent as a portraitist, through a life which spanned the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His new, notably different way of painting portraits, in a particularly Spanish style, generated much success within royal, aristocratic and intellectual circles. Furthermore, his engagement with the Enlightenment movement represented a way of reforming Spanish society, during one of the country’s most tumultuous periods, in a way that Spaniards embraced.

The exhibition is arranged through eight rooms, chronologically tracing the development of Goya as a portraitist – from his first self portrait in 1780, to his portrayals of the Spanish aristocracy, the Enlightenment period as an intellectual movement, the Spanish Court, liberals and despots, other artists, friends and family until the final years of his life, spent in Bordeaux with other exiled Spanish liberals.

Charles III in Hunting Dress (1786-8) ‘demonstrates his growing capacity to make even the most socially remote figures appear approachable and real’.

It is perhaps Goya’s sheer admiration for his subjects that ensures the most intense, honest depictions. The Count of Floridablanca (1783), Goya’s first major portrait commission, is portrayed with a most endearing honesty; Goya had a real engagement with the people he painted. Moreover, critics have remarked that his Charles III in Hunting Dress (1786-8) ‘demonstrates his growing capacity to make even the most socially remote figures appear approachable and real’.

As he developed as an artist, the direct simplicity of Goya’s work intensified and there was no longer any uncluttered depictions, for example if The Count of Altamira (1787) is compared with his first commission of Floridablanca. Goya introduces an awkward naivety to the portrait, with the Count of Altamira sat on a low chair adjacent to a higher tabletop. A true empathy for the sitter is reflected.

There is no sense of self-importance in The Dowager Marchioness of Villafranca (1796), but rather a conversation between two individuals. Yet, Goya still manages to portray the Duke of Alba’s elderly mother with a respect that is both moving and sympathetic. Goya’s family portraits are loving and informal. Perhaps he takes such inspiration from Thomas Gainsborough. The neutral backdrop of The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children (1788) gives an almost Velazquez-esque effect.

It is perhaps Goya’s unique creativity and unwavering honesty in his observations that has ensured that his memory lives on

In 1792, Goya suffered an unidentifiable illness that left him completely deaf. Despite this, Goya focused on what he really believed in, and enjoyed a further 30 years of success as a portraitist. In 1799, he was appointed first painter to the King, assuming sole responsibility for painting the royal family. Charles IV in Hunting Dress (1799) even features the King’s dog, complete with the inscription ‘Soy del rey’ (‘I belong to the King’) on his collar.

Gail Turner has marvelled at how ‘daringly unflattering he could be…and how he managed to get away with it!’ Yet it is perhaps Goya’s unique creativity and unwavering honesty in his observations that has ensured that his memory lives on. Portraits remained Goya’s ‘chief way of communicating his love, admiration and thanks to those who helped him’, and he continued to produce them until just before his death, aged 82, on 16 April 1828.

Goya: The Portraits runs at the National Gallery, London, until 10 January 2016.

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