Goya : The Portraits – National Gallery
In a world that seems to be obsessed with selfies and where popular photography has ruled the roost for over a century it is hard to imagine a time when having a life-like representation of yourself was the real deal. It was generally only the preserve of the wealthy and nobility. The common person passed through life without leaving a trace of how they looked.
Of course, having commissioned a portrait your immortal image was very much in the hands of the painter. People often have an inflated image of their looks and demeanour and an artist, particularly one desperate for commissions, must have to battle with the temptation to create a flattering image of their subject. Some artists throw caution to the wind and paint what they see in front of them, blotched cheeks, frizzy hair and all. Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was definitely in the latter camp as this magnificent exhibition of 71 of his portraits amply demonstrates.
Before visiting the National Gallery I was not overly familiar with Goya’s portraiture – for me he was an artist with a brooding imagination, a surrealist who satirised vice and illustrated the horrors of war. I’m not overly fond of portraits as a genre as en masse they have a tendency to be samey and formulaic, the painter walking the tightrope between veracity and flattery. By the time I had wandered through the seven rooms I realised that Goya was a cut above the rest.
Where to begin? The exhibition is broadly in chronological order. A latecomer to portrait painting – he was 37 when he gained his first commission – Goya’s early works, principally in the first couple of rooms, are rather awkward in composition and what rescues them is his remarkable insight into human nature. You feel you get sense of the character of the individual before you.
The chronological approach serves to emphasise the enormous transformation in Goya’s style following his serious illness in 1792-3 which left him deaf. The series of portraits of some of the key figures of the Spanish Enlightenment have a much more naturalistic style about them and demonstrate that he was in total command of his materials. Without doubt the later paintings are much more satisfying and one is left wondering whether the loss of his hearing sharpened his visual powers, perhaps in the way that Turner’s myopia engendered his dalliance with impressionistic techniques.
I was surprised to see a rather exhausted and troubled Duke of Wellington amongst the array of Spanish royalty and nobility but the general’s entry into a jubilant Madrid in 1812 made him a natural subject for Spain’s pre-eminent portrait painter. Goya’s paintings from 1799 of King Charles IV in his hunting gear and queen Maria Luisa in her mantilla puncture the veneer of stuffy royals. These are real people with real characters, almost approachable. And Goya’s famous portrait of the Duchess of Alba whose finger points down to the legend, sola Goya, at her feet is as magnificent as it is cracked up to be. It is a bold, confident statement of Goya’s mastery of the genre.<p
For me, though, the finest painting was one of his later ones, Self portrait with Doctor Arrieta (1820) – Goya painted a number of self-portraits and occasionally included himself in the composition of other portraits – a marvellous celebration of the artist’s triumph over a near fatal illness and a paean to the skill of his medic. The shadowy figures in the background are either ghouls or people assembling to witness the last rites. They were to be thwarted for another 8 years.
If you are able – the National Gallery despite a timed ticket policy can be a bit of a bun fight – it is worth some time studying the background and foregrounds as this is where Goya has some fun. The portrait of Luis Maria de Vallabriga (1783) shows the child with a piece from a geographic jigsaw in his hand. It just happens to be that part of Spain to which he and his family were exiled. The Countess of Fernan Nunez (1803) has a miniature portrait of her hubby around her neck and in perhaps the most amusing painting, Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga, three cats skulk in the dark background eyeing up the caged birds whilst a magpie holds Goya’s calling card in his beak.