VISITORS to the latest exhibition in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery descend Robert Venturi’s great staircase to its subterranean depths. The first portrait to come into view, from the final turn of the stairwell, is one of Goya’s last works.
Painted in 1820, when the elderly artist was raddled with ill health at the age of 74, it shows him in the arms of his much loved doctor, Eugenio Garcia Arrieta. It is a self-portrait of unremitting painful trust, as the doctor, who shortly afterwards left to work in West Africa among victims of the bubonic plague, administers a glass of cordial to the bleary-eyed and profoundly deaf patient, who is barely able to support the weight of his bed-clothes.
At the end of his life (Goya lived on until 1828, when he died in self-imposed exile in Bordeaux), he had come to trust in modern medicine rather more than in the ministrations of the Church, although, like many Spanish artists of the day, his earliest works had been religious commissions for churches.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes lived in interesting times, during which the Iberian Peninsula underwent many changes in the birth pangs leading to modernism: economic expansion; agrarian revolution; Enlightenment liberalism; repression; the expulsion of the Jesuits; the re-establishment of the Inquisition; foreign invasion; and the establishment of an absolutist monarchy. Remarkably, through all this, Goya was to serve as a painter at court for years.
But this is to run ahead of ourselves, and the exhibition is best seen in the broadly chronological order in which some 70 portraits are brought together for what is claimed as the first monographic show that concentrates solely on portraiture, although we should not overlook the 2001-02 exhibition of Goya’s women which the Prado sent to Washington, DC.
Of the first portraits, the dominant painting is a large family group, in which an old man, in court dress, looks vacantly across the table at which his wife beside him, 32 years his junior, is having her hair combed. He has abandoned the game of Chinchón, and the cards are left unattended on the green baize.
By the old man’s side stands a young blond-haired boy, his profile echoing that of his aged parent, who looks up at the elegantly accoutred man standing opposite his father, his arms crossed in haughty disdain, one of a group of four companions on the right of the picture who seem to be less than excited by the scene.
In the left-hand corner, Goya has depicted himself as if he is about to begin to paint a portrait, although only his own shadow is cast across it by the light of the single candle. Clearly, this cannot show him trying to paint all 14 figures on an upright canvas. He is watched by a perky little girl who nestles against the dress of one of the two ladies-in-waiting, who hold their lady’s bonnet. A precociously quiet babe is held in the arms of a tolerant old nanny.
Dr Xavier Bray, who has been planning this brilliant exhibition for more than ten years, first brought this enigmatic portrait group from the Magnani Rocca Foundation in Parma to show us in Trafalgar Square in 2001 as a sort of amuse-gueule for this comprehensive and highly enjoyable exhibition.
It turns out that the old man at the centre of the assembled company is the Infante Don Luis de Borbón (1727-85), brother of King Carlos III (reigned 1759-88). The youngest son of Felipe V, he had been ordained Archbishop of Toledo at the age of eight, and was appointed Primate of Spain and raised to the cardinalate in December 1735, giving him the dubious honour of being the youngest ever cardinal in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
For want of a true vocation to the religious life and to celibacy, to judge by his notorious philandering, he wisely chose to abandon his ecclesiastical orders in 1754, and he was given the title of Conde de Chinchón. Years after his elder brother became king, Don Luis was exiled from court, following a sex scandal (1775), and was ordered to marry, to put an end to his womanising.
He withdrew to live in a palace at Arenas de San Pedro, designed for him by the architect Ventura Rodriguez, whose portrait (Stockholm National museum) hangs next to the group. Family life seems to have been happy 150km west of Madrid, and Goya spent the summers of 1783 and 1784 with the family, sometimes even hunting with the prince, when this ambitious work was undertaken.
The following year, the Infante Don Luis was dead. Maybe he had presentiments of death as he ignored the cards on the table in front of him. The king was never reconciled to his late brother’s family, and it was only years later that the family was allowed to take the Borbón name again.
The son, Luis María (1777-1823), whom we first met standing at his father’s silent side, was instructed at home; Goya’s 1783 delightful portrait from the Museo de Zaragoza shows him standing next to a map of Europe, which is propped up against a chair. Two years later, he was sent away from home to be raised in the household of the Archbishop of Toledo; history came full circle when, in turn, he was appointed Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo and Primate of Spain, as his father had been before him.
Goya portrayed him, c.1800, at the age of 23, looking vulnerable and completely out of his depth in full fig (Museu de Arte de São Paulo). The informality of the painting is immediately apparent, and is a clear mark of Goya’s supreme confidence as a portrait painter. As Dr Bray points out, unlike the paintings by his British near-contemporaries Reynolds, Gainsborough, Raeburn, and Constable, each and every portrait by Goya is distinctly different. There is no “standard” portrait: whether painting members of the aristocracy or enlightened scholars, friends, and thinkers, he invests each with a degree of psychological interest.
Each of his sitters occupies his or her own space, or, in the case of the Conde Altamira (1756-1816), at least tries to. In 1785, the National Bank of San Carlos commissioned Goya to portray members of the Board of Directors. Vicente Joaquin Osorio de Moscosco y Guzmán Fernández de Córdoba, to give him his full names but to omit the formal titles of his seven dukedoms, 11 marquisates and 17 counties, appears to be a man of very short stature, scarce able to rest his elbow on the board table. But the 1787 portrait found favour with Altamira (Colección Banco de España), who commissioned others, of his first wife and his children.
The artist spares none, and, as a result of his honesty, we see the fraught world of politics, both of Church and State, and the fidelities of friendship — not that he was above flattering some sitters to make a point.
The British Museum has loaned the red-chalk drawing that Goya made of the Duke of Wellington when he finally entered the liberated city of Madrid in August 1812, in which the Duke appears drawn and exhausted. Not so Goya: even though the city had endured much with the French occupation, the artist exhibited an equestrian portrait of its liberator and English friend within a month. That painting is not in the exhibition (it hangs at No. 1 London, Apsley House), but the celebrated oil portrait from the National’s own collection is; Goya has smoothed the wrinkled brow and made the victor the equal of any emperor.
The position of a salaried court painter which he held meant undertaking formal commissions. Here, Goya deftly showed his own colours. His friendship with the Infante Don Luis meant that portraying the famously ugly King Carlos III cannot have been easy, although the result is modernist rather than a caricature, and cleverly evokes the world of Goya’s admired precursor Velázquez and the court of Felipe IV.
The 1799 portrait of the King’s successor Carlos IV is also in hunting dress; he appears benign, as the king as man of the people, a tactic that became necessary in a world where egalitarianism north of the Alps had killed the French king and spread revolutionary views that had crossed borders.
Personal distrust seems to characterise the portrait of Ferdinando VII, a divisive figure in his day and ill-remembered by many to this day, who was twice king (1808 and then 1813-33). Much as Mariano Rajoy has recently threatened to impose direct rule from Madrid on the Catalonian separatist movement of Artur Mas, so Ferdinando increasingly adopted autocratic powers when he was restored.
In exile, he had been a rallying-point for nationalists keen to throw off the French yoke, and was favourably nicknamed “the Desired One”. Goya painted him in 1814, soon after the victories of Wellington ensured his return. Within a matter of months, he was despised as “the Felon King”, who abrogated the new constitution and then reintroduced the Inquisition, closed the universities, and harassed liberals.
Goya also had to paint the Duke of San Carlos (1771-1824), who had helped Ferdinando regain his throne and who became his chief minister. That masterly portrait of subservience (Museo de Zaragoza) ushers in an era in which Goya increasingly felt alienated. Many of his liberal friends were exiled, and he, too, was summoned to the Inquisition. The French air undoubtedly inspired him and comforted him; although he made one brief return to Madrid in the summer of 1827, aged 81, it was there he died.
The exhibition weaves the artist’s life into the world of his acquaintance and his circle of friends at Court. Although he began to paint portraits only in his mid-thirties, some 150 or so are known to survive. Visitors to London can see more than 60. Dr Gabriele Finaldi has recently returned from Madrid to be the Director of the National Gallery; I hope that the generous number of pictures loaned from the Prado, where he worked for 13 years, make for a happy homecoming in this extraordinary show.
“Goya: The Portraits” is at the National Gallery (Sainsbury Wing), Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 10 January 2016. Phone 020 7747 2885.