Shamefully it seems, after reading so much high praise for the National Gallery’s 2015 giant of a show, I must be one of the last to catch Francisco Goya’s portraits in action. But after all the hype, the Spanish master of the nightmarish Black Paintings did not disappoint. Even with the throngs of visitors jostling for space in the dreary National Gallery temporary exhibition space, Goya’s ability to capture the heart and soul of his sitters was blissfully apparent.
Surviving three kings, French invasion, severe illness and incredible social upheaval, Goya soldiered on as one of the most famous Spanish artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries – rivalled only by his 16th century idol, Diego Velázquez.
Taking a look around the National Gallery exhibition is like a veritable who’s who of Spanish aristocracy. Dancing through the upper echelons, Goya portrays the Duke of Osuna in a dynamic ¾ position wearing a plush blue jacket, while the Marquis of Villafranca and Duke of Alba leans against a fortepiano like the cat that’s got the cream. Nearby the feisty Duchess of Alba stamps her foot and points her finger to the sand to declare her allegiance to Goya, and only Goya.
We’re told throughout that Goya’s talent lies in capturing the true essence of the sitter. However, as Goya begins to find his feet with portraits at the ripe age of 37, it seems doubtful he’ll ever crack it – though the sparks of genius shine. Some of the primped and powdered faces certainly don’t have that glint behind the eyes we were expecting.
But strolling through the show, Goya takes astonishing strides into his mature style that has the Spanish court so beguiled that royals are more than happy to be branded unashamedly ugly. The result is brazenly honest: a quality often lacking in most portraits as vain patrons glance over artists’ shoulders. While Charles III opts for an especially misshapen face and courtier garb, his son Charles IV chooses hunting attire and the austere Ferdinand VII finds himself in splendid court dress with bejewelled brocade to boot. Curator Xavier Bray explains that for Goya, the highest compliment was a truly honest portrait – warts and all.
One of the most curious works in the show is undoubtedly Goya’s ‘Self-portrait with Dr. Arrieta’ (1820), made in gratitude to his physician after a life-threatening disease. Far from the classical portrait format one might expect, Goya shows himself on the brink of death, his sallow skin drawn and his head lolled backwards as Dr. Arrieta lifts a glass to his lips. In this astonishing painting Goya proves his salt as a persistent inventor, who continued to experiment with the genre of portraiture right up to his death eight years later.
This journey into Goya’s portraits is a fantastic encore to the tantalising overture at the Courtauld earlier in the year, where old crones and terrifying monsters leered out from the books of sketches he made later in life. At long last the National Gallery puts Goya on the map as a portrait painter like no other.