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Discover Goya: The Portraits at the National Gallery

Portraits made up a third of Goya's output with more than 150 works surviving today. Almost half of them will feature in Goya: The Portraits, supported by Credit Suisse, at the National Gallery.

Who was Goya?

Born before fellow iconic figures of the 18th and 19th centuries, Mozart and Goethe, and surviving Napoleon by some years, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) is one of Spain's most celebrated artists. During his 82-years he witnessed a series of dramatic events that would change the course of European history – much of which he reflected in his work.

After training in his home town Zaragoza, Goya headed to Madrid. Here, thanks largely to a number of influential patrons, he was appointed as First Court Painter to Charles IV and became Spanish aristocracy's favourite portraitist. A role he delighted in as this was a role his "master" – Velázquez – had similarly enjoyed over 150 years previously.

Goya remained in Madrid throughout the Peninsular War but disillusionment with the rule of Joseph Bonaparte and then the newly crowned Ferdinand VII prompted him to go into self-imposed exile in France from 1824. Just 4 years later, he was dead.

Goya the Revolutionary Portrait Painter

Goya was a supremely gifted painter who broke traditional boundaries and took the genre of portraiture to new heights. He was also considered to be an incisive social commentator, even during his own lifetime, with a reputation for seeing beyond the appearances of those who sat for him; subtly revealing their character and psychology through his portraits.

This innovative, unconventional and often subversive element in his art, along with his bold handling of paint, inspired artists of later generations, most notably Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon.

Therefore, it is surprising that although portraits make up a third of Goya's artistic output, there has not been an exhibition focusing solely on Goya's work as a portraitist ever before. That is until this autumn, when almost half of Goya's existing portraits will come together at the National Gallery, London.

The Count of Floridablanca

Goya received his first official portrait commission in 1783, from the Count of Floridablanca, and the resultant painting will travel to the UK from the Banco de España, Madrid. Floridablanca was First Minister of State and keen to communicate his image as a reformer and patron of the arts.

Floridablanca is pictured attending to his ministerial duties, in his office with his secretary, only to be interrupted by Goya himself. He is depicted poring over plans for the Canal Imperial de Aragón, a project that would facilitate trade and greatly develop the regional economy. On the floor is a volume of Palomino's "Práctica de la Pintura", to show Floridablanca's interest in the arts. Goya gives his sitter an air of modernity, a man who is actually getting on with things, in line with the ideas of the Enlightenment which were very much in vogue at the time.

This portrait was the start of Goya's upward trajectory. Floridablanca introduced him to Infante Don Luis who was living in exile from the Spanish court - his notorious love affairs having earned the displeasure of his very Catholic brother, the King. The immense group portrait of "The Family of the Infante Don Luis" (Magnani Rocca Foundation, Parma), will be reunited in London with some of the other portraits Goya painted of the Infante's young family.

The Duchess of Alba

Undoubtedly one of the stars of the show will be the iconic "Duchess of Alba" from The Hispanic Society of America, New York. She has only once left the United States and has never travelled to Britain.

Doña María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva was the highest ranking noble after the King. Though a great beauty, she divided opinions with regard to her personality; some believed her to be sensitive and generous, while others found her childish and difficult.

Much has been written about the relationship between Goya and the Duchess, some even believe they were lovers, although ther is no evidence to prove it. They were certainly close – in fact Goya would sometimes apply the Duchess's make-up for her.   

The 1797 portrait appearing in the exhibition shows the Duchess in mourning wearing a black lace "mantilla" and pointing imperiously at the ground where she has inscribed 'Solo Goya' ('Only Goya') – as if Goya is telling us that only 'Goya' can paint this fiery and unpredictable woman as she really is.

Reunited in London

"The Countess of Altamira and her daughter, María Agustina", which has never been loaned internationally, is travelling to London from the Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where for the very first time 'she' will be reunited with her husband, the "Count of Altamira" (Banco de España, Madrid). Goya was not shy about highlighting the Count's diminutive stature, which was much commented on by his contemporaries. However, as the Count held more titles than any other nobleman in Spain (including 7 dukedoms, 11 marquisates and 17 counties) so Goya also makes it abundantly clear that the Count was not embarrassed by his physical shortcomings. The couple will also be reunited with their son "Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga" (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), pictured wearing a fashionably expensive red costume and playing with a pet magpie (which holds the painter's calling card in its beak).

The recently conserved 1798 portrait of Government official "Francisco de Saavedra" (Courtauld Gallery, London) will be exhibited for the first time in more than 50 years alongside its pendant, painted in the same year, showing his friend and colleague "Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos" (Museo del Prado, Madrid).

Portraying the Royal Family

It was through his royal portraits in particular that Goya condensed the various aspects of his sitter's personality into a subtle look or gesture, which often did not flatter them. "Charles III in Hunting Dress" (Duquesa del Arco) features the candid portrayal of a weather-beaten face with its marked wrinkles and a somewhat ironic gesture, clearly revealing to us the personality of the King – who was indeed an enlightened man, a lover of nature and his people, who wished to be approached as 'Charles before King'. Similarly, in the portrait of "Ferdinand VII" (Museo del Prado, Madrid) we can imagine Goya's mistrust of the pompous and selfish monarch who abolished the constitution and reintroduced the Spanish Inquisition. Dressed in his finery and carrying a sceptre, his vacuous expression captures in a moment exactly what Goya must have thought of him.

The Artist and his Family

In contrast to the formality of his royal portraits, the National Gallery's exhibition will also be a chance to consider how Goya portrayed himself with unflattering honesty and also to 'meet' the people who were closest to him; his wife "Josefa Bayeu" (Abelló Collection, Madrid), his son "Javier Goya" (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Private Collection; Museo de Bellas Artes, Zaragoza)) and his childhood best friend and life-long correspondent "Martin Zapater" (Bilbao Fine Arts Museum). The exhibition also includes his last ever work, a picture of his only, and much beloved grandson, "Mariano Goya" (Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas). Painted just months before Goya's death on 16 April, 1828, this final portrait is a testament to the genius, skill, and unfaltering creativity of an artist who persevered with his craft to his very last breath.