Culture and Civilisations

Goya’s razor-sharp vision

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Goya’s razor-sharp vision

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Francisco Goya (1746-1828), the greatest Spanish painter after Diego Velázquez, is also the most modern. His searing images of human stupidity and cruelty influenced many artists and writers from Edouard Manet to Ernest Hemingway. Vigorous, confident, prosperous and long-lived, despite his disability and near-fatal illness, he made his career in turbulent times, boldly ignoring the need to conform, and remained committed to his fierce vision.

He was born in a village 20 miles from Zaragoza in north-east Spain. Little is known about his wife, Josefa, who bore seven children, six of whom died of smallpox or fever. When his surviving son became dangerously ill, Goya felt his own life was finished and exclaimed, “I have a boy of four years who is the child who all in Madrid consider as beautiful and he has been sick and I have not lived during the entire time.”

He had a passion for hunting and proved himself, Janis Tomlinson writes, “by killing eighteen animals [and birds] with nineteen shots: two hares, a rabbit, five partridges and ten quail.” He was also keenly interested in bullfights. In his Tauromaquia etchings he portrayed a daring man who “first mounted the bull and then, with shackles on his ankles, jumped from a table onto the bull.” He also depicted matadors pinned to the ground or thrown into the air by the horns of the bull. In modern Ronda, a hill town in Andalucía where bullfighting originated, traditional bullfights with matadors dressed in 18th-century costumes are called Goyescas.

He became a court painter in Madrid (population 157,000 in 1787) and had a lucky break when a rival fell off a scaffold. Goya painted walls and ceilings as well as royal portraits, and both taught and supervised younger artists. A new king gave him only 45 minutes to paint his face before a stand-in put on his garments and assumed his pose. Many of Goya’s letters are urgent but polite requests for long overdue payments.

He had a defiant and combative temperament, and was outraged when his sketches for a ceiling fresco were criticised and the judges ordered an inferior painter (his brother-in-law) to retouch them. Confident of his genius, he defied protocol and declared, “To consent to such a shameful indignity would be to erase all the merit achieved by my works at court.” He proudly and unrealistically added, “I always work with the same integrity, which pleases me, without having to deal with any enemies or being subject to anyone.” His rival was forced to follow the judges’ orders and Goya decided “to shit on the whole affair.” Despite this setback and estrangement from his relative, Goya prospered under royal patronage. He became wealthy as his salary and private sales of portraits increased, and acquired a stylish wardrobe and well-furnished house and studio. On a test drive in his fashionable carriage, he was flung out of it, hurt his leg and abandoned the vehicle. Nevertheless, he told a friend, “I spend a lot because I decided to and because I like it.”

Goya’s illuminating letters ranged from the humble and obsequious to the obscene and crude. Petitioning the King to allow him to return to court after his health-cure in a French spa, he begged, “I come to place myself at Your Feet, as your faithful servant, to entreat you to grant me my retirement, with the honorarium I enjoy . . . if the goodness of Your Majesty concede me this grace.” By contrast, when corresponding with an old friend, he was uninhibited and amusing about the torments of old age: “I would like to know, if you are good looking, serious, noble or unhappy, if you have grown a beard and if you have all your teeth, if your nose has grown, if you wear glasses, if you walk erect, if you have any gray hairs and if time has passed for you as it has for me.” In a postscript he added, “Take what I can’t give you,” and embellished the letter with drawings of male and female genitals.

Letters were even more precious when in 1792, age 46, he suffered vertigo and noise in his head, and lost his hearing from a “paralysis of the auditory nerves”. He’d recently purchased 220 pounds of lead-white, which poisoned and deafened him. Electric therapy failed and from then on (like Beethoven) he heard absolutely nothing, but the malady that drove him inward also sharpened his vision.

During Goya’s five decades in Madrid, beginning in 1775, he witnessed the downfall of the Bourbon monarchy (which had appointed an eight-year-old to be Archbishop of Toledo), the occupation of the Spanish throne by Napoleon’s brother during the Peninsular War and the restoration of the Spanish king. Though Goya loathed the French invaders and condemned them in The Disasters of War, he was unjustly attacked for his willingness to profit from any regime that paid him. Why not? He was passionately dedicated to his art, which came before politics, and wanted to keep on painting.

In 1820 the widowed Goya began a liaison with a Spanish married woman, Leocadia Weiss, 42 years his junior. He painted her standing, resting her arm on a huge rock and wearing a long black gown with a veil that blurred her rosy cheeks and tiny features. Though she faithfully accompanied him into self-imposed exile in Bordeaux in 1824, she had a fierce temper, and either ranted at the old man or amused herself without him. A friend reported, “I don’t see the greatest harmony between them.” Goya adored Leocadia’s young daughter Rosario, born in 1814. He taught her to paint and praised her precocious talent: “She is perhaps the greatest phenomenon in the world doing what she does at her age. . . . The things that she does have astounded all the professors in Madrid.”

A friend, discreetly omitting to mention the scandalous Leocadia, observed that Goya arrived in Bordeaux “deaf, old, awkward and weak, and without knowing a word of French, and without a servant (that no one needs more than he), and so content and so desirous to see the world.” He admired the Garonne River, walks, streets, shops, theaters and people, took pleasure in the country, food, independence and tranquility as well as the company of numerous exiles who fled during the reign of the conservative Ferdinando VII. The French police, keeping an eye on all foreign liberals, recorded: “He never receives anyone at his lodgings, and the difficulty he has in speaking and understanding French keeps him often at home, which he leaves only to visit the monuments and stroll in public places.”

Goya developed a tumour on his kidney, which his doctor called “as dangerous as it is uncomfortable”. But like Titian (and later Picasso and Lucian Freud), in old age he still had a powerful urge to create and bravely declared, “You may thank me a lot for my bad writing, because I have neither sight, nor pulse, nor pen, nor inkstand. Everything is lacking and only my will abounds.” He died in Bordeaux after a paralytic stroke on April 16, 1828. He was 82.

Janis Tomlinson, Director of the University of Delaware Museum, has published four important books on Goya’s art, but does not give sufficient attention to his work in this biography. She explains that she wrote “the first draft of this book as a history, dependent solely on extensive documentation,” then realised that this “did no more justice to Goya than a curriculum vitae”.

Yet this book, despite its Joycean subtitle, is still more a documentary history than a biography. Goya often disappears for several pages in a mass of dull details as she asks: “We lose track of the family. . . . Where was he?” Tomlinson includes almost everything she’s found rather than what interests the reader. Though she’s knowledgeable and intelligent, her dozens of laborious and plodding sentences, with lists of unfamiliar names, feel like trudging in mud: “he grew accustomed to the apprentices who came and went: Joseph Ornos (or Hornos) in 1749, Miguel San Juan in 1750, Manuel Peralta in 1751 and again in 1754,Tomas Martínez in 1751, and Vicente Onzín in 1754 (to be identified as Vicente Uncín in 1755 and as Onzí in 1756 and 1757).” Another sentence, 88 words in 7 lines, contains the names of 10 places, people and titles.

Tomlinson’s academic biography is heavily factual, but there is also a great deal of speculation. She uses typically speculative words — perhaps, possibly, probably, presumably, purportedly, reportedly, may have, might have and we can only imagine—about 50 times and ends the book with another “final speculation”. But there’s no need to speculate about Abila, “yet to be identified”; it is Albi, which Goya visited on the way home from France. She is good on the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Spain; better on Goya’s paintings than on his life, though she’s more interested in costume and technique than in meaning: “Working on metal rounds about three inches in diameter, he applied a red-toned ground similar to that of his oil portraits, then with fluid strokes defined the weave of Gumersinda’s straw or Manuela’s stiffened gauze bonnet, the shimmer of ribbons, the transparency of the pleated edging of their dresses.” But she lacks vivid personal details and Goya never quite comes alive. Robert Hughes’ biography of 2003, which she does not list in her bibliography (mostly works in Spanish), is infinitely superior: more lively, perceptive and well written.

At the end of the book Tomlinson states that “the goal of a biography is to study a life, rather than focus on an artist’s work, but there is always hope that lives examined will shed new light on the oeuvre.” Since the artist’s work makes the life worth studying, a first-rate biography should include both. She does, however, provide a precise description of Goya’s full-length portrait of the duchess of Alba:

“Wearing a white dress with red sash, the duchess stands before an arid landscape. . . . Small dots of paint and subtle vertical strokes give weight to her abundant white gauze skirt, as does the gold brocade decoration that anchors its hemline. Counterbalancing the skirt’s expanse of white are the accents of the red sash and bows, double-stranded coral necklace, gold earrings, bracelet, armlet, and the duchess’ crowning glory, the abundant black curls credited by contemporaries with awakening the desire of all men who saw her.”

It’s sad to recall that this beauty, with her typical Goyesque features—large dark eyes, thin nose, small mouth—later became insane.

King Carlos IV, Goya’s principal patron, was a cultured man, interested not only in hunting but also in music, decorative arts and painting. Tomlinson identifies the 13 people in The Family of Carlos IV and mentions that Goya’s shadowy appearance in the left background, contemplating his masterwork on a gigantic canvas, was inspired by Velázquez’s inclusion of himself in Las Meninas. In Goya’s daring painting, which abandons the usual flattery, the king’s sister is a wide-eyed old witch with a black patch covering her skin cancer. The Spanish writer Salvador de Madariaga wrote that the “half-witted” Carlos had “mental powers of the most touching modesty.” Though Goya risked dungeons and chains for lèse majesté, he felt that Carlos was too ignorant, egoistic and complacent to realise that he and his wife were being satirised.

Majas were lower-class but well-dressed women notorious for their cheeky behaviour. Since naked female models were forbidden in 18th-century Spain, we may assume that Goya did not paint from life his Naked Maja with her scandalous and seductive fringe of pubic hair. The dress intensified the eroticism of this woman in The Clothed Maja, and suggested that the promise of sexual pleasure was even greater than actual consummation. The all-powerful Spanish Inquisition, replete with torture instruments, had ordered Goya to paint over the exposed breast of a woman in an altarpiece, and The Naked Maja got him into more trouble. The painting was taken from the collection of a powerful nobleman and confiscated by the Inquisition, which sought to identify “the painter who has occupied himself with the creation of works so indecent and prejudicial to the common good.” Goya was unmasked and summoned to appear in court, but since there is no further record, his prestige and patrons may have protected him.

Tomlinson briefly describes Goya’s greatest painting The Third of May, 1814 (pictured),in which French soldiers in a firing squad point their rifles very close to the doomed prisoner: “Goya crystallised the atrocity in an iconic image of good versus evil [though it is much more complex than that], juxtaposing the fear and disorder of the prisoners, illuminated by a lantern and trapped by the hillside behind, with the merciless precision of the guns raised by anonymous figures in greatcoats and shakos.” She adds that Goya portrays “the precise stances of struggling opponents, the reactions of those for whom death is imminent, and the weight of corpses in the left foreground that threaten to bleed into the viewer’s space.” The partisan wears an open white shirt and yellow breeches and raises his extended arms like Christ on the Cross. As a robed monk kneels in prayer, friends weep for the victim and hide their agonised faces with their hands. The Naked Maja influenced Manet’s Olympia, just as The Third of May influenced his Execution of Maximilian. And Goya’s Meadow of San Isidro was the precise model for Berthe Morisot’s View of Paris from the Trocadéro.

Tomlinson emphasises the contrast between the figures in Self-Portrait with Dr Arrieta, the man who saved Goya’s life:

“Centrally placed, the physician supports Goya and coaxes him to sip his red tincture. The juxtaposition of doctor and patient is a study in contrasts of one man in his prime and another in old age: Arrieta’s concentration and focused gaze counter Goya’s barely opened eyes and apparent oblivion to his surroundings; Arrieta’s vigor contrasts with Goya’s inability to sit without his support. Colors reinforce these differences, as the doctor’s ruddy complexion, set off by his green coat, counters Goya’s ashen pallor and the gray tones of his robe. Goya is present in body only; with eyes unseeing, his mind strays into the shadows, perhaps [my italics] conjuring the faces that emerge from the shadows behind.”

But the similarities of the two men and the doctor’s sympathetic identification with his patient are more striking than the contrasts. Dr Arrieta’s tousled hair, pouchy deep-set eyes, lined face and grim expression do not suggest a man in his vigorous prime. He sustains Goya not only with medicine but also by cradling him as the artist falls backwards and desperately clutches the sheet. The sickly doctor shares his illness and suffers with him.

It’s worth noting two fascinating works not discussed by Tomlinson. In Saturn Devouring One of His Sons a gigantic, shaggy, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, ravenous, demonic, cannibalistic god, clutching his helpless victim, has gnawed an arm and head off the bloody torso and — like Ugolino gnawing his son’s skull in Dante’s Inferno — feasting on the torn flesh of the remaining arm stump. Goya wrote that his Caprichos etchings (1799) portray “the peculiarities of physiognomy, profound expression of the passions and understanding of anatomy” and are “capable of inspiring endless moral reflections.” Que Sacrificio!, which I own and have carefully studied, depicts a pretty young buxom girl with long black hair, belted white gown and tiny feet spread apart in pointed shoes. Sacrificed in marriage by her avaricious family and by their smiling complicit go-between, she clasps her hands, tilts her head backward and closes her eyes to avoid the repulsive scene that destroys her life. Her mother weeps as her hideous father pushes the suitor forward with open palm and extended fingers. A wealthy and grotesquely deformed hunchback–with bulbous hooked nose, protruding rump and thick crooked legs—crouches with his head close to and staring at the girl’s breasts. There’s an agonising contrast in this sad and intensely dramatic scene—in which Goya portrays extreme emotions with razor-sharp lines–between the horrified virgin and the lecherous hunchback eager to ravish her.

Tomlinson could have profitably discussed the influence on The Disasters of War of the surrealistic and grotesque cruelty in Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death and Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, both stolen and taken to Madrid after the Spanish conquest of the Netherlands in 1556. When Napoleon invaded Spain he continued this artistic rape and took hundreds of paintings from the royal collections; when Wellington defeated the French, he sent 81 pictures to his mansion (now the museum of Apsley House) in London.

Goya had a profound influence on Hemingway as well as on Manet. In Disasters he portrayed many of the atrocities that Hemingway described in his story A Natural History of the Dead: fighting women, dead horses, pillaging the dead, mutilated bodies, rotting corpses, cartloads for the cemeteries, mass burials and the death of truth. The grim scenes in Disasters recall modern atrocities: the Nazi photos of hanged partisans in occupied Poland, and the corpses of starved civilians piled up in the streets during the long wartime siege of Leningrad.

In Death in the Afternoon (1932) Hemingway gives a brilliant summary of Goya’s achievement and his appeal to all the senses but hearing: “Goya did not believe in costume but he did believe in blacks and in greys, in dust and in light, in high places rising from the plains, in the country around Madrid, in movement, in his own cojones, in painting, in etching, and in what he had seen, felt, touched, handled, smelled, enjoyed, drunk, mounted, suffered, spewed-up, lain-with, suspected, observed, loved, hated, lusted, feared, detested, admired, loathed, and destroyed.” As André Malraux observed, Goya wanted “to tear the mask of deception from the world’s face.”

Janis Tomlinson. Goya: A Portrait of the Artist. 34 colour plates and 46 figures. Princeton UP, 2020. 388 pp. £30.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 77%
  • Interesting points: 91%
  • Agree with arguments: 77%
24 ratings - view all

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