Goya: The Portraits, at The National Gallery

What we make of an artist’s career after he is long gone often, inevitably, is at odds with the artist’s own intentions. Goya wanted to be known for his portraiture, and in his particular his ambitious role as a court portrait painter. He could hardly predict that the vision we have of him mainly conjure the cruel denunciations of Horrors of War engravings, or the dark creativity of Black Paintings, as well as his harsh, biting satire of Spanish society and fantastical sabbats in Caprichos.

Competing with the hype of drama, horror and scandal is a challenge for the first exhibition devoted solely to Goya’s portraiture, all the more when it starts off slowly. Goya in the first rooms is shown not as the tragic, deaf artist we all know and love, but as a late bloomer, only just starting his career in portraiture in his late thirties and whose true ambition is to become the official portrait painter of the royal family. Only a handful at this early stage allow small and often enigmatic glimpses into the informality and sincerity he will try and cultivate in later paintings. This sense of intimacy is taken to an almost bizarre extent with the vast composition juxtaposed to it, The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon. The theory of the curator, Xavier Bray, is that Goya is comparing his role and that of the portraitist directly to that of the barber, listening in on court gossip…

The amount of noble and royal collections that follow in quick succession are a testimony to Goya’s ambition, but not all complete masterpieces, building up a career in progress and a patient, painstaking learning curve, leaving room for flaws as well as gems.  These are not all the most memorable paintings, nor are they particularly set out as such, more as a patient build-up to Goya’s maturing portraiture. A shorter selection would have allowed for a faster pace and more concentration on Goya’s earlier blend of tenderness and delicacy, searching for a stable identity and brand measuring up to his ambition and pride.

 

Countess of Altamira with her daughter, 1787-88

Francisco de Goya, The Countess of Altamira and Her Daughter, María Agustina, 1787-8, Oil on canvas, 195 x 115 cm, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.148) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The visitor witnesses the gradual transformation of style and substance in Goya’s portraits, the elimination of slightly hard lines and postures of previous portraits and the creation of a mesh of light, colour and brushwork that is more soft and diffuse, not concentrated equally around the canvas but focusing on specific elements. Interestingly, the moment this style reaches full maturity is the moment where, slightly confusedly, the exhibition veers away from the chronology indicated by the “First Portraits” rooms and focuses on particular themes. So far, Goya had succeeded in securing a comfortable position at court, but yearned for more that the royal tapestry commissions he regularly received. Perhaps this frustration led him further into painting not only royals and nobles but also the enlightened spirits of the time, men of power and responsibility who seem to let him grasp further than appearance and symbolism. His liberal ideals and those of the Enlightenment shine through these quiet, introspective portrayals.

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Francisco de Goya, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, 1798, Oil on canvas, 205 x 133 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid P03236 © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos’ portrait shows the Minister of Grace and Justice as through taking a break from work and from the task of reforming Spain, melancholic and weighed down yet determined at his desk. Layers of depth and meaning let us leave the sincerity struggling to seep through the stateliness in the previous rooms: if this room starts with a self-portrait of Goya posing in his studio, like a small advertising billboard, it ends with a starkly intense reflection in the mirror, in black and white. There is something particularly startling about this confrontation – the realization that we are engaging in a dialogue with these sitters conducted via Goya’s intense gaze.

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Francisco de Goya, Self Portrait, 1795-7, Brush and grey wash on laid paper, 15.3 x 9.1 cm, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1935 (35.103.1) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The idea of Goya treading the line between the flattery of portraiture and the honesty of his gaze, laying bare his sitter’s souls with audacity and, to a certain extent, because he had the skills to get away with it, is very attractive to us.Despite the subtle flattery that Goya weaves onto his double hanging portraits of Charles IV and Maria Luisa in her fashionable mantilla, they still exude a relaxed confidence that does not need props or backdrop – indeed here the backdrops are outdoors, adding a sense of softness to the scene but also a strange theatricality. Opposite them hangs a portrait that is both spectacular and far more elusive, as well as one of Goya’s most famous portraits: the Duchess of Alba, whose portrait radiates charisma and aloofness, more fantasy than reality.

Maria Luisa with Mantilla 1799

Francisco de Goya, María Luisa wearing a Mantilla, 1799, Oil on canvas, 205 x 130 cm, Colecciones Reales, Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real de Madrid © Patrimonio Nacional

Yet this idea is thrown off by the tumultuous shifts in governments that occur from 1808 onwards that hardly gives room for picking sides. Just as Goya condemns the horrors of war he does not have his say after the installation of Joseph Bonaparte at court, and paints the returning monarch and tyrant Ferdinand VII  in just the same way.  Is the portrait of the King truly meant to depict him in such a subtly spiteful and shallow way with his beefy face and his body dripping with pompous regalia, or are we inferring too much? This is the flip side to the depictions of the “horrors of war” that Goya portrays elsewhere and creates a far more ambivalent and realistic portrait of the painter as a man bound to a job rather than the visionary satire and denunciation which may compromise it. It may not be the aspect of Goya we enjoy the most, but it is perhaps the most realistic.

The exhibition only just decides to tackle the impact that Goya’s deafness has had on his portraiture in the penultimate even though he has in fact been deaf ever since his illness in 1793. The display’s presentation of the paintings of his friends, shows that these were all the more important to him since he was not able to communicate with them as he usually did and probably relied on the closeness of a portrait sitting to do so. This is without a doubt, with the last room depicting his last portraits and his family, the most touching and powerful part of the exhibition. It is the moment in which these portraits become people and establish a relation with us, creating a true emotion and presence that goes beyond the original context and material life of an object destined to hang in a private home or office. The warmth and raw honesty of Martin Zapater’s portrait is a face to face testimony to the strong love between the two childhood friends whose record lives on through correspondence.

 

Portrait of Martín Zapater, 1797

Portrait of Martín Zapater, 1797, oil on canvas, Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (c) Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa – Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

The last room is like a quiet farewell already steeped in a certain degree of darkness, suggesting the turmoil of the Black Paintings, for instance, in Goya’s self-portrait of himself as a fading, desperate man held up by the doctor who saved him and for which he offered the painting as a sign of gratitude. Even then, the tenderness and love of his family portraits, from sketches and miniatures to a portrait of his adored grandson, shows another, ultimate side of Goya. The dark Romantic visionary has left a little room for several other lesser-known Goyas – the friend, the intellectual, the ambitious courtier, and the proud and doting grandfather.

Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, 1820

Francisco de Goya, Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, 1820, Oil on canvas, 114.6 × 76.5 cm, Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, 52.14 © Minneapolis Institute of Art

The exhibition succeeds in making Goya’s portraiture not only relevant but relatable – faces and glimpses of personalities that we can recognize, identify with, laugh at, or wish to know better. It somehow tricks you into believing this is going to be a somehow technical and slightly dry account of Goya’s evolution as a portraitist at the beginning but transcends these biographical and technical barriers.

While the rythm is slow to begin with it becomes flowing and effortless, creating a walk-through that is easygoing and feels shorter than it is – in the best of ways. Small rooms with warm, welcoming colours and lighting allowed for an intimate navigation in between works that was all the more heightened by the inclusion of the captions in a visitor booklet rather than on the wall, allowing wandering around and autonomy.  The intensity and depth of his portrayals has a special depth and presence within the succession of rooms that is strangely heartening. I emerged from it with the need to return to see a few particular portraits again before they leave London again – like visiting old friends.

 

 

 

 

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