When I first saw the grand lofty gallery in the Prado filled with Goya’s portraits, and indeed upon subsequent visits, I admit that I was not overly won over. It was not so much that the portraits were bad, just that by comparison with the dramatic visions of the 2nd and 3rd May 1808 in the adjacent room, or of the even more terrifying and enthralling Black Paintings alongside that, the portraits of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) always felt a little…bland. It also occurred to me that they all looked a little samey, with their piercing round black eyes sparkling like the glass eyes of teddy bears, and this led me to the perhaps premature conclusion that Goya had painted his sitters more idealistically, rather than realistically.
But the current Goya exhibition at London’s National Gallery sheds new light on this important epoch of the artist’s work, and seen within a narrative of their rich historical context, and with the ability to compare and contrast a magnificent set of some of Goya’s best, suddenly these portraits seem just as compelling as the magnificent sombre works which followed.
The portraits of Goya cannot be deemed the most technically adept in the world. I could not help but notice that on this head or that, the shading was wrong, or the head-piece look flattened and oddly two-dimensional. And I was interested to read that Goya’s was mostly self-trained, a fact which was to me, a likewise self-taught painter, obvious in the gradual improvement of his portraits from early attempts through to his magnificent depictions of the family of Charles IV of Spain. However, his greatest skill was psychological insight, and this was evident in a series of portraits which seemed to penetrate the sitter through to the core. The result was a series of rooms which felt as though they were occupied by the living shadows of history, almost like the paintings in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, whose sitter would come alive within the frame.
This all makes for a thoroughly enthralling exhibition whose sitters literally leap off the walls to introduce us to the historical periods which characterise the works; from the more informal portraits of the Spanish royals, painted with a view to pacifying the public in the aftermath of the French Revolution, to the somewhat obsequious depictions of French generals after the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. However of all the works, my favourites were of the aristocratic stars of the time, full of bold gestures and extravagant swagger, each competing with the other to afford the more exquisite portrait, and with it, the greater standing in society.
Goya’s portraits are a window on a long past world of aristocratic dominance, and regal fancy, and of a time caught between the birth of the enlightenment and the trauma of invasion and turbulent changes of power. And while many of the sitters exhibited those same teddy-bear black eyes which had caught my intention at the Prado years before, it is the intensity behind the gaze in those eyes which left a lasting impression on me as I left this superb London show.
Goya: The Portraits is on at The National Gallery in London until 10 January 2016… so get there quick!