Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Goya: The Portraits

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Goya: The Portraits

Article excerpt

Goya: The Portraits

National Gallery, until 10 January 2016

Sometimes, contrary to a widespread suspicion, critics do get it right. On 17 August, 1798 an anonymous contributor to the Diario de Madrid , reviewing an exhibition at the Royal Spanish Academy, noted that Goya's portrait of Don Andrés del Peral was so good -- in its draughtsmanship, its freedom of brushwork, its light and shade -- that all on its own it was enough to bring credit to the epoch and nation in which it was created. He (or she) was absolutely correct.

The same could be said of many of the exhibits in Goya: The Portraits at the National Gallery. The people in these pictures rise up, as Vincent van Gogh hoped his own portraits would do in the future, like apparitions. There they are in front of you, these people who lived two centuries ago, with all their poignancy, absurdity, passion and energy.

It is because Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) made them look so alive that we are interested in the time and place in which they lived. Otherwise, who except specialists in Hispanic history would pay much attention to late 18th- and early 19th-century Spain? But as it is, we want to learn about these fascinating people that Goya shows us (and by reading the excellent catalogue, by the curator Xavier Bray, we can).

This is not to say that, magnificent as the exhibition is as a whole, it is entirely made up of masterpieces. Goya was a slow starter. Although he had formal training, he was essentially self-taught (as he noted).

Some of his earlier efforts have a stiff naiveté that is close to folk art. The main figure in the 'The Count of Floridablanca' (1783) is wooden and doll-like and yet the painting as a whole is oddly memorable. Goya himself -- short, subservient and sturdy, presenting a painting to his patron and simultaneously pushing himself into the picture -- is a more lively presence than the noble subject.

Even while he was following the protocols of aristocratic portraiture, Goya just couldn't stop himself noticing -- and depicting -- all sorts of extraneous and revealing sights. Cats, their eyes bulging with ferocious greed, wait to pounce on the pet bird held on a string by the dandified toddler, 'Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga' (1788). …

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