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Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, July 10, 1989 | Go to article overview

Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment

Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation

A portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs of Carlos III of Spain marks the threshold of an exhibition that otherwise consists solely of works by Goya. The portrait serves as a frontispiece, as it were - Carlos points outside the picture to the works that follow - but it also expresses the premise of the exhibition, Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until July 16), in two distinct ways. Carlos was one of those monarchs, like Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia and Joseph II of Austria, who embodied the political virtues of the Enlightenment as fully as the Encyclopedie expressed its intellectual vision: The so-called Spanish Enlightenment was altogether his achievement. And Mengs, who came to Spain at Carlos's invitation, was regarded as the greatest painter of his time despite his conspicuous aridity, and set the aesthetic standards of the Spanish court. Goya's first significant patrons were those Enlightenment intellectuals Carlos had the wit to appoint as ministers in charge of his benign policies of reform and toleration. Whatever his gifts otherwise required, it was a condition of securing commissions that he internalize the somewhat stiff and austere mannerisms of the neo-classical style, for which Mengs tirelessly campaigned. One can sense the tension between inclination and conformity in Goya's very early (1782) portrait of the Conde de Floridablanca, Carlos III's chief minister, and every inch an Iluminado: The Count stands severely upright, like the statue of a Roman emperor, albeit in red satin court dress with a blue grosgrain shoulder sash, one arm extended, the other akimbo. But he is placed in a room filled with shadows, and the other figures have such a contrasting fluidity and animation that the work looks like a collaboration between two artists with radically different styles.

There is little doubt that Goya's values were the values of his enlightened patrons, but the degree to which his work can in any sense be classed as Enlightenment art, and hence to what extent these values penetrate the work and enable us to respond to it as we should, remain interesting questions. Consider, to begin with, Mengs's portrait of Carlos. It is of an Enlightenment monarch and by an advocate of the style that came to define Enlightenment tastes. But it does not show Carlos as Erklarungsmensch but rather as the commander in chief of his armies, resplendent in polished armor and gold-embroidered draperies, wearing his decorations and holding the baton of his authority. The wig is an eighteenth-century giveaway, and the face could hardly have been painted in any earlier age, but an eighteenth-century depiction of an eighteenth-century monarch is not necessarily a piece of Enlightenment art, and in fact Mengs has adopted the conventions of the baroque portrait in his effort to represent the sovereign with maximal dignity. In contrast, Goya certainly shows Floridablanca as an enlightened minister, since he is surrounded with the emblemata of his values: books, expressing a taste for knowledge, and maps and a clock, expressing the rationalizations of time and space. Goya even puts himself in the picture showing the count a picture (too small to be this portrait) and in this way establishes him as a patron of the arts. But does the portrait of Floridablanca as such express Enlightenment values any more than does Mengs's portrait of the king?

Let me bring this question out more vividly by considering a much later work, the profound portrait of Bartolome Sureda, of about 1805. A great deal had happened to Spain and to Goya between the portraits of Floridablanca and Sureda. Carlos III had died; Spain was ruled uneasily by the nearly imbecile Carlos IV; Floridablanca and the other enlightened ministers had been driven out of office; in France the Enlightenment had given way to the Revolution, whose values were frightening because of the threat they posed to monarchical legitimacy (Louis XVI was beheaded in 1793), guaranteeing a conservative backlash; Napoleon cast black shadows over Peninsular politics.

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