It’s an unsettling experience, standing in front of the little pen and ink study which the Spanish artist Goya made of himself in 1795. He may in fact be concentrating on his own image in a mirror, but it’s easy to persuade yourself that you, the viewer, are the object of that penetrating stare. I’m reminded of the stories people tell of being subjected to the same relentless scrutiny on meeting the late British painter Lucian Freud. Neither artist missed much, nor were they exactly known for flattering their subjects.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) was a later starter as a portraitist. He was already 37 when he painted his first, having until then been known mainly as a religious artist and tapestry designer. To help, as some early works in this compelling show demonstrate, he frequently borrowed motifs from other artists, including Gainsborough, David and Joseph Wright of Derby, whose works he would have known from prints. There’s a big, clumsy group portrait of “The family of the Infante Don Louis de Borbon,” the king’s brother. Goya’s inclusion of himself and his unfinished canvas in the painting suggests that he sought to emulate his great predecessor Velasquez’s famous royal family group, “Las Meninas,” considered, then as now, the pinnacle of representational art. You have to admire his ambition.
This was a turbulent period in Spanish history, as the country lurched from absolutist rule to revolution, occupation by the French, and, finally, despotism. Throughout, Goya portrayed the great and the good. Monarchs, statesmen, the clergy, generals, intellectuals: it’s a impressive array, many of the paintings still owned by the families who originally commissioned them. Portraits remained an important part of Goya’s work; there are more than 70 in the show, and that’s barely half his known output.
He always portrays his sitters with admirable candour. As newly-appointed National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi puts it, “Goya’s gaze pierces through outward appearances and reveals human frailty and fortitude, folly and wisdom.” Often his sitters are downright ugly, like the benevolent King Charles III, although to his credit Charles was quite relaxed about this and Goya was merely following the official line. Or take the portrait of fellow artist Andres del Peral, clearly suffering from the after-effects of a stroke, yet depicted with genuine affection. He painted the Duke of Wellington after his victory at Salamanca in 1812, yet it’s a far from triumphant portrayal; instead, the British hero seems emotionally distant and war-weary, with a “thousand-yard stare.” Contrast these broadly sympathetic likenesses with the brutal image of Ferdinand VII, a king execrated in Spain to this day because of his despotic rule. No attempt is made here to tone down Ferdinand’s disagreeable appearance, almost reminiscent of the grotesques in the “Caprichos” etchings or the so-called “Black Paintings”. Goya was well known for his liberal views; it’s remarkable that he got away with it.
The exhibition is rounded off by less formal paintings of his friends and immediate family, including the remarkable portrait he made of himself and Doctor Arrieta, who saved the painter from a life-threatening illness in 1820. An inscription on it thanks Arrieta for his skill and care. (Goya was fond of labels; one of his last drawings shows him as a wizened old man with the words Aun aprendo – I’m still learning).
For me, though, the highlight of the show is the magnificent full-length portrait of “the Duchess of Alba,” owned by the Hispanic Society of America, now in New York. Resplendent in black (her husband had died the year before), she points at the ground, on which is written Solo Goya – Only Goya, although whether she was ever the artist’s mistress, as some have claimed, is uncertain. Still, you can see why one contemporary wrote of Madrid’s reigning beauty that “every hair on her head awakened desire.” It’s a shame that this outstanding exhibition is taking place in the Stygian gloom of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing basement, because if ever a work of art belonged upstairs in the splendid Victorian galleries, this one is it.