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Book Review – Goya : The Portraits by Xavier Bray ( National Gallery )

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Goya: The Portraits by Xavier Bray, with contributions by Juliet Wilson-Bareau, Thomas Gayford, Manuela B. Mena Marques, Allison Goudie, is published by and copyright of National Gallery Company Limited, 2015.

Published to coincide with Goya: The Portraits exhibition at the National Gallery, this book explores the artist’s development in relation to portraits, from his first commissions to more intimate works. Both the exhibition and the book attempt to illustrate that it is through his portraits that we can better understand Francisco Goya y Lucientes, the man and artist.

The main author, Xavier Bray in the chapter entitled The Making of a Portrait Painter explores the beginning of Goya’s portrait painting career and some of the major influences.  It was Goya’s move to Madrid in 1775 that set him on the path to gain the skills needed for his first portrait commission. The influence of artist Anton Raphael Mengs and the artistic legacy of Diego Velazquez gave Goya the structure to develop his own particular style and by the 1780s he was in position to receive his first portrait commission from the Count of Floridablanca. Determined to make a favourable impression, the portrait accentuated the Count’s status, Bray makes the important point that ‘ Goya’s main preoccupation at this stage of his career was more about context and social status than character or psychological analysis’. The portrait made a favourable impression and Goya was asked to paint portraits of the King of Spain’s younger brother and his family, the Infante Don Luis Antonio Jaime de Bourbon who was not a conventional member of the royal family and had led quite a dissolute life before settling down to married life. The various portraits of the family allowed Goya to gain the psychological insights that would find its greatest expression in the remarkable group portrait, The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Bourbon. The portrait offers an informal view of the family surrounded by servants and Goya himself in the corner. However this only tells part of the story, the various characters seem to be looking in various directions, some directly at the viewer. This portrait of the family led to people to consider that Goya may be a worthy successor to Velazquez and Goya began to receive portrait commissions from influential and aristocratic figures. Now in his late thirties, Goya began to paint portraits of politicians and aristocrats, most notably the powerful Altamira and Osuna famlies that further advanced his reputation.

The chapter on Portraying the Spanish Enlightenment considers how Goya’s connections with all sections of Spanish society was remarkable but not without its dangers, the death of Charles III and the French Revolution began to raise questions of Goya’s loyalty to the crown and to the liberal forces in the country. A self-portrait from 1792 shows a well dressed and alert Goya in shadow, for all of his ambition it seemed the safest place was in the shadows and not in the limelight. What he did not know was that his greatest danger was not external but internal, a serious illness in 1793 left him profoundly deaf for the rest of his life.  If anyone doubted that Goya could recover from this setback, two new and powerful patrons provided the evidence that the artist had lost none of his artistic power. The Duchess of Alba and Manual Godoy were two of the most charismatic members of the Spanish elite and Goya painted portraits that acknowledged their standing in Spanish society.  Goya’s portraits of the Duchess of Alba  have long been the subject of debate due to the unusual aspect of the pictures which has the Duchess pointing to the ground to a dedication by Goya. This has led many to suggest there was an amorous aspect to their relationship but there is no evidence to support this theory.

The next chapter First Court Painter to the King discusses Goya’s elevation to the post of First Court Painter to Charles IV which bought considerable financial advantage but provided its own challenges. His portrait The family of Charles IV in 1800 show the royal family in all their splendour with Goya featured in the background still in the darkness. Goya’s new position led a number of new major commissions before the outbreak of the Peninsular War and the book features a number of paintings from this period including the muse-like The Marchioness of Santa Cruz.

For all the insight of the painting of the elites, it is the chapter entitled Goya’s Friends, Colleagues and Family that introduce us to a set of portraits which the author considers are amongst ‘his most powerfully expressive and moving works’.   The contrast of these works with the society paintings are many, gone is the vanity and arrogance to be replaced mostly by honesty and good humour. This good humour did have its limits, his portrait of his son Javier hints a sense of disapproval of his young gentlemen status that relied on living off his father’s assets. In contrast the portrait of his grandson Mariano is full of the strong bond between Goya and the small boy.

For Goya, the events of 1808 when Charles IV abdicated and Napoleon’s brother was made King of Spain bought considerable changes. The chapter Liberals and Despots explores how Goya’s cautious nature and reputation allowed him to paint portraits that included Spanish, French and English officials and officers. One of the most celebrated was a portrait of Duke of Wellington in 1812 that shows the Duke looking tired and haunted by his campaigns. The return of the Spanish Monarchy with Ferdinand VII led to the suppression of the constitution and the return of absolute monarchy, Goya as first painter to the King was instructed to paint the new ruler. Goya produced one of the most unflattering portraits of a King, he may possess all the finery of kingship but Ferdinand is presented as a disturbed and unattractive individual.

The final chapter in the book Portraits in Goya’s Later Years ( 1815 – 1828 ) begins with a pair of self portraits that show Goya in 1815 nearly 70 years of age looking old and tired.  In 1819 he suffered a serious illness which is recorded in the remarkable self-portrait which shows him held up by his Doctor, Eugenio Garcia Arrietta. After this illness, visions of death and evil concerned Goya who between 1820 and 1823 produced the extraordinary Black Paintings. Although he painted his last aristocratic paintings in 1816, he did continue to paint portraits in Spain and in France where he went for a period of time to escape the political upheavals in Spain. Amongst the last portraits is a painfully honest drawing of his son Javier who had gone from young buck to slightly obese middle-aged man still living off his father’s wealth and a painting of his grandson Mariano who is now an attractive young man. This was to be one of his last portraits before he died in 1828.

This lavishly illustrated and authoritative book examines Goya’s remarkable skill at capturing the psychology of his sitters, many of the stunning portraits in the book show the works are not the idealised version of the sitter but shows a realism that is often unflattering. It illustrates the strength of Goya’s reputation to be able to get away with this unconventional approach painting the Spanish Aristocracy and other powerful figures of his day. However it is a sense of Goya trying to survive the social, political and cultural shifts of his homeland that shine through, for much of his career it was necessary to stay in the background of events. This important book brings Goya out of the shadows and rightly shines a new light on a remarkable career and shows how influential Goya became for later painters who pursued new levels of realism.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like to find out more or buy a copy of the book, visit the National Gallery website here

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