ArtIssue 7

Goya and the Selfie

Goya: The Portraits at the National Gallery

7 October 2015 — 10 January 2016

Francisco Goya (1746–1828) could teach Kim Kardashian a thing or two. Yup, the doyenne of ‘selfies’ herself, Kim K, her cheekbones looming under a blank-eyed stare, has nothing on the image-making intimacy, the unsparing realism, and the psychological depth Goya draws from his subjects – and from himself.

Interspersed among Goya’s pictures of others in the National Gallery’s ex­­hibition are Goya’s many pictures of himself. They serve as focal points as you enter each room, punctuation marks in the oeuvre. In every chamber the gaze of the artist interrogates you as you interrogate his art. ‘Do you like what you see?’ he seems to ask, as much as any teenager posing for validation on Instagram today. ‘Do you think I’m special?’ It is in these self-portraits, perhaps even better than
in any of the grander, more famous paintings, that we see the flourishing of his talent and the turbulent changes of an entire nation.

In the first Self Portrait (1780), Goya’s face peeps out worried, half in shadow; a man as yet unsure of his powers. Goya came late to portrait painting – he was thirty seven before he painted a portrait of anyone but himself – and this picture marks his election to the Royal Academy of Fine Art of San Fernando in 1780, from which point he was allowed to seek his own commissions. It may well have been painted in celebration. In this first room, Goya’s previous work in tapestry comes to the fore in the group setting of the Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon (1783–4), where individual figures are picked out carefully in a frieze-like composition. The family were royals exiled from the court for Don Luis’ philandering ways, and trying here to adapt themselves to middle-class life but springing wildly from the frame. Five of the subjects look directly out from the painting, but the poses are informal, the moments private; the young bride Maria Theresa is having her hair done, the disgraced Don Luis plays cards. Still preening, still gambling. Goya, having spent two years staying with the family, had the time to know their expressions and peccadillos intimately. Indeed, in his letters, he prided himself on succeeding in finding their characters on canvas where “other artists have failed” (it’s suggest­ed that the lurking figure on the far right is one such failure). And a self-portrait appears here too; crouching in the foreground, turning towards his subjects as their shadows play over the canvas on his easel, Goya already knows that each portrait he paints of others is also adding to the picture of himself.

Shadows recur. They haunt Goya’s face in the public portraits early in his career before gathering force to cover the walls of his house as the Black Paintings (1819–1823), in the silent world that encroached after he became deaf, or – if it is true that he also went mad – in the world filled with the infernal babble of internal voices. In these earlier portraits, though, shadows appear only as suggestions; the dappling of lace on the Countess of Altamira’s neck (1788); the armoured figure of Minerva posed watchfully above a tired Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1798). Goya’s stature at court rose, his portraits becoming more self-assured and more experimental. Manuel Osorio Manrique (c 1788) was an unknowing portent of what was yet to come: a young boy holds on a golden chain a pet magpie, watched avidly by three demonic, sinister cats, while the magpie holds Goya’s calling card in its beak. The bird seems a good stand-in for Goya; free to pick out shiny people to paint – within the bounds of his gilded chains of patronage. It is the bold statement of a state of rich bondage by an artist made ‘Painter to the King’ just two years before in 1786. But at the same time, the forces of darkness gather behind the young child and his white halo. Some even posit that it was painted after the death of young Manuel, and the devastating illness of Goya just two years later in 1792; a memorial with hindsight, the demons in the shadows about to creep into light.

As Goya’s illness left him profoundly deaf, his artistry takes on a new import­ance as communication. His Self Portrait Before An Easel (1792–5), heading up Room 3, presents an artist gleaming with embroidered threads and elaborate decoration going confidently about his work. The end of the 18th century also heralded a new age of political reform – the governmental offices previously given to Spanish aristocrats were now going to many of Goya’s liberal friends and confidantes. His pictures of his friends become even more familiar, intimate, and searingly honest. A portrait of his close friend, societal reformer and poet, Juan Antonio Melendez Valdes (c 1790) has every broken blood vessel on his nose and cheeks picked out; another friend, Andres del Peral (pre-1798), has the drooping lip and facial disfigurement in­dicative of his recent stroke; Goya’s lifelong childhood friend Martin Zapater (1797) is not spared the lumpy details of his bulbous nose. Yet Goya paints with real affect­ion and love for those portrayed – Martin Zapater’s eyes are alight with warmth, and Andres del Peral commands respect with his pose and strength. Loving inscriptions are often painted directly onto the canvas of friends he cares for.

But Goya’s deep affection for his subjects emerges most in his family portraits; the six miniatures of 1805 depict his family members, painted in warm tones. His love for them and his life’s work mingle here together; all the figures are wearing the rich fabrics and signifiers of status that Goya’s position has bestowed upon them. But his family aren’t spared his honesty either; witness the messy hair and homely clothes of The Artist’s Wife (1805) and the drooping face of Javier Goya y Bayeu (1824), Goya’s only surviving son. As ever with Goya, the love comes through in the details.

Even in the portraits of royals, where Goya is kinder, the artist is often caught up in a scribble of lace, or the shine on a shoe, over fidelity to proportions. In the famous 1797 portrait of The Duchess of Alba, she blisters out from the landscape in black lace, her expression pert and her pose challenging, pointing with both hand and foot to a scrawl in the sand that reads ‘Solo Goya’ – only Goya. In his own painting he lays claim to her, through hers on him – maybe as a lover, maybe as but an artist. Touchingly – or perhaps forlornly – this portrait was still in Goya’s possessions by the time of his death. In return, the Duchess received his Self Portrait at an Easel (1796–7) as a gift, a portrait painted of the portrait painter, as she would have seen him. These pictures are ever bolder and at ease, and it was in these years that Goya also painted the masterpieces Charles IV Of Spain and His Family (1801), The Naked Maja (1800), and The Clothed Maja (1805), all of which which remain at the Prado and represent the only major lacuna in this exhibition.

His next Self-Portrait (1815) captures how difficult the intervening years were. The Naked Maja caused Goya to be summoned on obscenity charges in 1808, esc­aping prosecution only when the tribunal accepted that he painted as part of a tradition that included Titian and Velazquez. As Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne in 1814 the liberal government was rolled back, and many of Goya’s beloved friends were arrested. The darkness of his Self-Portrait (1815) shows a haunted man, his gaze turning inwards; it was around this time that Goya began to decorate the walls of his home with the witches and demons of the Black Paintings, shrouding himself in private darkness. Even darker is the Self-Portrait (1820) showing Goya ministered to by Doctor Arrieta. The patient strains away from his bed, his figure twisted, and body drained, as the doctor supports him and tends to him. In the background, shadows gather around him. Are they demons coming to steal his soul away, or ministers of his last rites, there to save it?

It didn’t matter just then, for Goya survived this illness to carry on painting right up until his death at the age of 82 in April 1828. In his last self-portrait, a crayon sketch still in the Prado entitled I Am Still Learning, Goya unstintingly portrays himself as a withered old man, balancing on two walking sticks. While the darkness of black crayon envelops him and his robes, at a time when Goya himself went into exile in France to avoid the absolutism of Ferdinand VII, the artist was still experimenting; painting on ivory miniatures, learning the new techniques of lithography, drawing in black chalk. In this final sketch he’s still striding forwards, his gaze looking out from the page and seeking, no doubt, his next subject.


Admission £16 (£8 concs.). Catalogue: £35 hardback; £19.95 softback.