Goya: A Portrait of the Artist by Janis A Tomlinson - review by Robin Simon

Robin Simon

He Painted It Black

Goya: A Portrait of the Artist


Princeton University Press 388pp £30

Francisco Goya y Lucientes was a mass of contradictions. He was a liberal, initially sympathetic to the French Revolution, who liked nothing better than to go hunting with successive absolutist monarchs of Spain. He was deputy director of the Royal Academy in Madrid, yet believed that traditional academic training was useless, insisting that ‘there are no rules in Painting’ and the ‘servile obligation of making all study or follow the same path is a great impediment for the Young’.

Goya was by disposition anticlerical, though he happily executed countless religious images designed to satisfy Spanish Catholic worshippers. These paintings are, frankly, rather soupy. That is not what we expect from Goya, who is usually seen as more loopy than soupy: this is the man who created the ‘Black Paintings’, Los Sueños, The Disasters of War, The Third of May 1808 and Los Caprichos. Yet, as this thorough and balanced biography shows, many of these works, so often hailed as startlingly ‘modern’, do not fairly represent the art of Goya or his personality and are probably misinterpreted. During his lifetime Goya was renowned for his religious pictures and his portraits, but we mostly prefer the works of a very different kind that he made for himself.

Goya suffered a severe illness in 1793, when he was forty-seven, that left him deaf. The experience is often said to have cursed him with nightmarish visions and a fear of mental illness. But he may not have been so damaged after all, Tomlinson suggests. Far from being some sort of unhinged recluse, Goya remained sociable, humorous and family-loving all his life. The Black Paintings (a title that only dates from the 20th century), for example, may have been intended simply to entertain visitors to the country house that he acquired in 1819.

Tomlinson explains that Goya painted them over straightforward landscape decorations on the walls there and that they were designed in the manner of the phantasmagoria shows that could be seen in contemporary Madrid. They were in a dark interior and were probably meant to make the visitor jump, which would have made calling on Goya for drinks a little like an unplanned visit to the house of horrors at a fairground. True, some are macabre: I inadvertently saw Saturn Devouring His Son in my early teens and it was a very unsettling thing to come across. But the others are nothing like as scary and several are obviously humorous, including the over-interpreted The Dog. Presiding over the whole scheme is a lovely portrait of Goya’s companion, Leocadia Weiss.

In the same vein, we ought to remember that Goya’s six scenes of witchcraft, bought by the enlightened Duchess of Osuna, were not so much the record of a mind tormented by visions as they were a satire of popular superstitions encouraged by the Church. Goya’s notorious scene of a lunatic asylum, meanwhile, was one of a group of paintings he sent to the Royal Academy for discussion. We don’t know the subjects of the others, but they were all intended to emphasise the importance of invention and imagination.

Goya’s sense of humour was one of his most appealing features, and he never lost it. In 1824, he painted forty entertaining miniature scenes on slivers of ivory while teaching drawing to Weiss’s eleven-year-old daughter, Rosario. Tomlinson’s descriptions of these little masterpieces, just two or three inches square, epitomise the main strength of this book, her first-hand knowledge of the works, which enables her to assess the significance of the mass of facts that she has assembled to trace the course of Goya’s life. Here she is explaining their creation:

He prepared the ivory surface with a binder, possibly egg white or gum arabic, and then covered it with carbon black mixed with a little water or egg yolk. Water dropped on the still-damp carbon black formed an irregular spot of white that inspired the image to come; remaining black could be wiped or scraped away, and details added with small strokes of color. The pattern left by the water on the surface suggested his subjects.

Goya had an instinctive dislike of authority of any kind, in politics as much as in art, but he was also blessed with a powerful instinct for survival. In 1799, for instance, he issued sets of the eighty etchings comprising Los Caprichos, but withdrew them after only twenty-seven had been sold, perhaps out of fear of the Inquisition (though Tomlinson questions this interpretation). Whatever the reason, much of the fame of Los Caprichos is posthumous. The same is true of a remarkable number of the works for which Goya is best known today. The eighty-two prints in the series The Disasters of War, which he made between 1810 and 1820, were not published until thirty-five years after his death in 1828. The Third of May 1808, so influential upon later artists, from Manet to Picasso, seems never to have been seen during Goya’s lifetime and was probably in store until the 1840s. Neither it nor its companion painting, The Second of May, was even created until six years after the events they commemorate – the quelling of an insurrection against the Napoleonic occupiers of Madrid under Joachim Murat and his savage execution of anyone thought to be involved.

During the insurrection, Goya kept his head down and soon, in December 1808, he was swearing allegiance to the new king, Joseph Bonaparte. It was only in 1814, with the Bourbon Fernando VII back on the throne, that Goya felt free to record his impressions of the uprising. He was still the official court painter and his 1815 portrait of the truly appalling Fernando is perhaps the most savage portrayal of a brute in office in the whole history of art. Luckily for Goya, Fernando was too self-obsessed to notice.

Portrait painters, to adapt Dr Johnson, live to please and must please to live. Goya was not like that. He painted anyone precisely as he wished and not as they might have hoped he would. Sometimes, in official portraits especially, he seems not even to be trying. At the other end of the scale, when he pulls out all the stops in portraits of friends, there is almost no one who can touch him. In these works, such as his portrait of Sebastián Martínez of 1792, he reveals himself to be a master of brushwork. Tomlinson is an excellent guide to this and similar works:

Painting to impress a connoisseur, Goya exploited both color and handling in a manner that anticipates his greatest portraits of the coming decade, using a highly diluted blue pigment for Martínez’s fashionable coat, allowing the ground to show through to create a painterly equivalent for the shimmer of the material, and then adding narrow green stripes that further define form.

This wizardry was the result of Goya’s close study of Velázquez’s paintings in the royal collection while making a series of prints that he published in 1778. From that moment on, he could pretty much paint as well as Velázquez. It was just that he did not always choose to do so. Goya was contrary to the end.

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