October 14, 2015

Solo Goya

Hello from London where the weather is perfect and the museums are bursting with new exhibitions!  One of the most anticipated shows of the season has just opened at The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square and that is where I am going to begin.

For the first time ever, The National Gallery is presenting an exhibit devoted solely to the portrait paintings of Francisco Goya (1746-1828).  Although known primarily for dark and troubling depictions of war, the Spanish artist was also quite an important portrait painter commissioned by royalty and aristocrats.

The seventy paintings assembled here (nearly half of his entire output in this genre), cover the entire span of his portraiture from his first important commission of the Spanish Prime Minister, Count Floridablanca, 1782, painted when he was 37, to his last, loving portrait of his grandchild, Mariano Goya y Goicoechea, circa 1827, shortly before his death at the age of 82.

While, at first glance, some of these pictures may seem a little "off", they always have a unique perspective of the sitter's personality and position in society.  Some may criticize Goya's handling of hands or faces or positioning, but each portrayal is a complex psychological study and subtly exposes the subject's attributes and faults.

One of the more magnificent examples of his portraiture is this group sitting of "The Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children" on loan from the Prado in Madrid.  While some critics comment that all the faces are the same, it is nevertheless a very important picture.  The Osunas were one of the most enlightened families in Spain - cultured and forward thinking - and Goya captured their modernity with this informal (for the time) pose.  Here, the father holds his daughter's hand while the little boys are playing with their toys and the Duchess holds a book to indicate her intelligence.

There are many wonderful portraits in this exhibition, but the star of the show is undoubtedly Goya's full length painting of his patron, "The Duchess of Alba", on loan from The Hispanic Society of America.  Recently widowed, the Duchess was the highest ranking woman in Spain, after the queen, and one of the most wealthy.  A famous beauty with a fiery temper, she is depicted here in a black lace mantilla imperiously pointing her right index finger to the ground where Solo Goya [Only Goya] is written.  It was long thought that the two were lovers but the current theory is that they were intellectual equals and that he stood alone as a portrait painter.

Goya worked during a time of great political and social unrest in Spain.  The French Revolution and the decapitation of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI understandably made the Spanish Royal Family a little nervous.  Goya, as Court Painter, was charged with creating portraits that made the King and Queen look human and approachable.  Overcoming deafness at the age of 46 and upheavals in government and culture, Goya continued to paint and thrive and remain true to his own ideals.  He left a profound body of work that was admired and emulated by such artistic luminaries as Delacroix, Degas, Manet and Picasso and continues to impress to this day.

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