Spanish artist Francisco Goya, best known now for depicting the horrors of war, was celebrated in his own time as a great portrait painter for royalty and aristocrats, generals and despots, politicians and friends.
An exhibition at London’s National Gallery brings together about 70 portraits spanning nearly 50 years that show Goya painted with great honesty, never prettifying his subjects and achieving great intimacy as result.
Born in Zaragoza in 1746, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes lived through tumultuous times, including the Peninsular War and French occupation of Spain, which gave his work what National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi called its “searing vision”.
Curator Xavier Bray said the exhibition reappraised Goya’s status as one of the great portrait painters in art history.
“His innovative and unconventional approach took the art of portraiture to new heights through his ability to reveal the inner life of his sitters, even in his grandest and most memorable formal portraits,” he said.
The Prado Museum in Madrid contributed 10 portraits, while others came from the Navarran city of Pamplona and as far away as Sao Paulo, Brazil. Some are from the private collections of the families of the original sitters and have been never been exhibited before.
A highlight is his 1797 portrait of the Duchess of Alba, on a rare loan from the Hispanic Society of America in New York. A famous beauty and wealthy widow, she was a close friend and patron of Goya with a reputation as an eccentric.
Standing in her estate at Sanlucar de Barrameda in Andalucia, dressed in a black lace costume and mantilla, she points to the ground where the words “Solo Goya” (Only Goya) are inscribed. Some have taken that as sign they were lovers but Bray said it was probably intended “to show a meeting of great minds”.
His portrait of Charles III in Hunting Dress (1786-88) shows a wrinkled, weather-beaten man with a long nose. It was not intended to be mocking, just an honest portrait of the famously ugly king, Bray said.
“Charles was happy about it. He wanted to be a friend of the people. He wanted to be shown as he was,” he said.
Another early portrait, the Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon (1783-84), shows his debt to Velasquez as he includes himself in the picture in homage to the master’s “Las Meninas”. It captures an intimate moment as Don Luis plays cards and his wife Maria Teresa has her hair done. But there is also intrigue in the characters of other men in the group.
Goya could capture a likeness as well as any photographer. The strong Bourbon features depicted in the face of Charles IV in Hunting Dress (1799) are identical to those centuries later of former Spanish King Juan Carlos. The accompanying portrait of Queen Maria Luisa shows a woman whose days as a beauty are long gone but who radiates a warmth nonetheless.
In the year of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington’s portrait holds special interest. Painted after the British and allied armies entered Madrid and drove out the French in 1812, it shows the great general battle-weary and exhausted despite the formal pose.
The exhibition also features Goya’s last painting, of his grandson, completed a few months before his death in self-exile in Bordeaux in 1828. It is also book-ended by self-portraits of Goya as a young man and near the end of his days.