Magazine article New Criterion

"Goya: The Portraits"

Magazine article New Criterion

"Goya: The Portraits"

Article excerpt

"Goya: The Portraits"

National Gallery, London

October 7, 2015--January 10, 2016

There have been many exhibitions devoted to the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), but the show at Britain's National Gallery is the first to concentrate on his portraits. The portraits display all the technical mastery of light and color, of detail and texture that characterizes Goya's other work but also have that supreme gift of the modern portraitist: an insight into the character and preoccupations of the sitter.

The curators have sensibly grouped the portraits in relation to Goya's close but changing relationship with the Spanish social order. Goya's portraits, other than the personal ones of friends and family and indeed himself, can only be understood in relation to the political history of that country. Goya was particularly concerned to paint sympathetically the eighteenth-century reformers seeking to modernize and enlighten what had become one of the more backward countries of Western Europe.

The paintings of two of Spain's leading reformers are hung alongside one another in the exhibition, which enables the viewer to see how skillfully Goya brings out the differences between them in character and in the roles they played in Spanish affairs. Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1798) portrays a man who was an author and philosopher as well as an important proponent of land reform. He was now the Minister of Justice, but he had been out of office for the previous seven years, which had given him time to write and think. That is what he is doing here. He sits leaning sideways with his elbow on a pile of papers on his fine neoclassical desk, his left hand supporting his head. He is looking straight at us, inviting us to share his thoughts. Behind him, light from a high window gently picks out the gleam from a bronze statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and patroness of trade. The background has been kept dim and a stronger light falls on the main subject, the sitter, who is a wonderful composition in white, gray, and black. His clothing is neat, plain, fine but not ostentatious, and as a mark of modernity he wears his own hair, and not the wig originally introduced into Europe by that very bald and very absolute monarch, Louis XIV of France.

Alongside Jovellanos hangs Francisco de Saavedra (1798). Saavedra sits with rigid back at a very plain, mere table of a desk, set against a nondescript background. No props, no symbols. He is very much the shrewd, alert executive ready for action. He had been a doctor, a spy, and a colonial administrator, and he had played a key role in the American War of Independence, coordinating the French and Spanish attack on the British forces in Virginia. Saavedra contributed more to the victory at Yorktown than Washington. The Spaniards were rewarded by having Florida returned to them. Now Saavedra, aged fifty-two, is at his peak, Minister of Finance and Secretary of State. His portrait personifies dutiful diligence and purposeful work, and he looks not at us, but to the side and into the middle distance, planning his next project.

Both portraits reveal whose side Goya was on--that of Reason with a capital R as opposed to the superstitions of an illiterate populace and the activities of the Spanish Inquisition, the monsters who emerged should Reason fall asleep. Goya was later to be investigated by the Inquisition, which considered his famous La MajaDesnuda(TheNakedMaja) (1797-1800), to be indecent.

Goya had already become the favorite painter of the aristocracy and of minor and excluded royalty, and his charm--and possibly too his minor hidalgo ancestry--enabled him to become intimate with them, to live in their houses and to be treated as a member of the household. He knew personally the grandees whom he was painting and how to converse with them. In the case ot The Duchess of Alba (1797), the imperious widow Alba, whose full-length portrait with a mask-like face looks like an illustration to a work by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the conversation may have taken another turn; he had spent eight months in her house, and she was even rumored to be the model for The Naked Maya. …

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