"The Show of the Decade" – Goya: The Portraits
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"The Show of the Decade" – Goya: The Portraits

Tickets for the National Gallery's landmark exhibition, Goya: The Portraits had barely gone on sale before the show was hailed by critics as "the show of the decade". 

Goya's First Portraits

Appropriately, the exhibition begins with a room devoted to "Goya's First Portraits". Here, the first indication of Goya's ability to paint his subjects as they truly looked, whilst allowing both their character and his own response to them as people reveals itself on the canvases.

The striking painting of "Charles III in Hunting Dress" says as much about Goya as it does of the Spanish king. Usually depicted in armour or official robes, here the artist has eschewed all the finery of state in favour of comparatively modest dress. Charles, equally renowned for being spectacularly ugly as much as he was for his egalitarian beliefs, is presented as a rather engaging, ruddy-cheeked avuncular character.

Portrait painter to the Spanish Aristocracy

In Room 2, we begin to explore Goya's burgeoning relationship with the Spanish aristocracy. The family group, "The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children" is a sweet and tender portrayal of one of Spain's most enlightened families. A clue to this is the Duchess holding a book. This marks her as her husband's intellectual equal, while his gentle lean to hold the hand of his daughter, Josefa Manuela, reveals an informal side of this otherwise, 'great' man.

Although this portrait is a departure from Goya's earlier sincere realism, it eloquently reveals the strong familial bonds within its subjects and his own feelings towards them, both as patrons and friends.

Portraying the Spanish Enlightenment

The French Revolution of 1789 inspired a series of reforms and political appointments by the Spanish monarchy, in an attempt to stave off bloody upheaval at home. With many of his patrons and friends taking government office, Goya himself advanced at court and was also appointed as Director of Painting at the Royal Academy of San Fernando.

Commemorating the appointment of his friend "Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos" to the role of Minister of Grace and Justice, Goya portrayed him as a man apparently earnestly wrestling with the affairs of state. Seated at a desk with his left hand propping his head up, Gaspar gazes at the viewer with an air of melancholy. The government papers resting on the desk and the document in his right hand suggest weighty matters that require his deep contemplation.

Official Portrait Painter to the Spanish Court

In Room 4 however, we see one of the exhibition's most arresting images and, arguably, the leading woman in his life – "The Duchess of Alba". Goya sets her in an arid landscape, a setting in complete contrast to her own personality and reputation. The Duchess displays certain hauteur, standing with one hand on her hip with the other pointing a finger to the dusty ground at her feet. Here, in the sand we see 'Solo Goya' (Only Goya). 

Exhibited for only the second time ever outside Spain, the portraits of "Charles IV in Hunting Dress" and his wife, "Maria Luisa wearing a Mantilla" are very special inclusions to the show. The royal portraits, which are of major importance to the artistic heritage of Spain, are in excellent, original condition and still in their original gilt wood frames having hung in the Palacio Real, Madrid ever since they were created by the iconic Spanish painter.

Charles bears a pleasant, open and approachable countenance but some experts believe Goya painted the king in a less favourable light by inferring that he was more interested in hunting than the affairs of state. Intriguingly, the adoring spaniel's collar says 'I belong to our king' and perhaps this is evidence of Goya's loyalty to the sovereign.

Goya was clearly sympathetic to Maria Luisa. In a rare gesture of flattery, Goya has kindly filled out the Queen's hollow cheeks (she had lost all her teeth by this time) and emphasised the youthful arms of which she was so proud. Goya also details her magnificent, traditional Mantilla dress. Made with extremely expensive Belgian lace, Maria Luisa was blamed for bankrupting several noble families of ladies at court, whom had tried to emulate the Queen's style.

Liberals and Despots

In his late sixties, Goya was summonsed to paint Charles IV's successor, "Ferdinand VII in Court Dress". The resultant image – a star of Room 5 – is both a triumph of the maestro's artistry and study of tyranny.

Following Ferdinand's return from exile in 1814, the new king was keen to establish an iron grip over his country. Goya deftly hints at this by showing Ferdinand's right hand tightly curled around a sceptre, symbol of sovereignty, while the other rests firmly holding the hilt of his sheathed sword. The heavy brows, bulbous nose and jutting chin do not convey a sympathetic relationship between the artist and his subject. 

The defeat of Napoleon, that facilitated Ferdinand's return to power, was thanks to the "Duke of Wellington", who sat for Goya in 1812. 

Having relieved Madrid from the yoke of the French forces, Goya presents the British hero not in a triumphant manner but as a battle-weary veteran. Wellington's face is a study in the effects of war. Nevertheless, the Duke's 'shoulders-back, chest-out' posture and military tunic, decorated with medals (several of which were added two years after he originally painted it) lends him a heroic demeanour, befitting of his victory. 

Goya's Inner Circle

In the company of his family and friends Goya expressed himself in a manner that conveyed his deep affections, inventiveness and uncanny ability to make a two-dimensional image look like real flesh and blood. Room 6 houses two remarkable paintings.

The beautiful image of "The Marchioness of Santa Cruz" bears testimony to Goya's long-standing relationship with his sitters. He had first painted her, at the age of four in the Osuna family portrait. Seventeen years later, Goya presents her wearing a revealing white gown and garlanded with grape leaves and clusters. This headdress and the lire she holds identify her as Erato, the muse of Love Poetry. The image is both sensual and intimate.

The oval frame surrounding "Martin Zapater's" visage, denotes Goya's especially close friendship with his sitter. Goya invests this painting of his childhood friend with a remarkably lifelike quality. Zapater's prominent nose and twinkling eyes have a charming immediacy and, passing the image from one side to another, whilst holding his gaze, Zapater appears to turn his head to follow the viewer.

The Private Goya

Room 7 presents the viewer with rare glimpses of his own family – such as the tender portrait of his son "Javier Goya y Bayeu".

Revered and successful though he was, Goya maintained a sense of his own mortality and gratitude to others for his good fortune. Nowhere is this more evident in his work than his "Self Portrait with Dr Arrieta".

Clutching his bed sheets, a feeble Goya lies back in Arrieta's supportive arms while mysterious, ghostly figures stand behind them in the shadows. Although the full extent of Goya's relationship with his doctor is not known, Goya's homage to Arrieta, and to whom he gave the portrait, is heartfelt and full of tenderness and humanity. Sadly, Arrieta later travelled to West Africa to study the bubonic plague and never returned. 

This room also includes the last work Goya ever painted, of his only, beloved grandson "Mariano Goya". Painted just months before Goya's death on 16 April, 1828. This portrait is a testament to the genius, skill, and unfaltering creativity of an artist who persevered with his craft to his very last days.