October 26, 2015 § 2 Comments
It was an early painting in the National Gallery’s Goya: The Portraits that I found hardest to stop looking at. I could hardly tear myself away from The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón: a group portrait of the Spanish king’s brother and his domestic entourage. Just as in Velazquez’s Meninas, the painter appears at the left edge of the picture, though here his back is turned and we actually see the canvas, a mere scumble of the red that washes, in varying rusty hues, across the figures at both sides, accentuating the splash of white that is the dress of the Infante’s wife. She is having her hair coiffed by the servant standing beside her chair; her husband, in profile, as is his young son, has a hand of cards on the table in front of them; the standing figures on the right include a man who looks straight at us with a grin and another lurking quizzically behind him.
The composition and the use of colour, both atmospheric and emblematic, the stories embedded in this painting – all fascinate and tantalise. As well as the clear comparison with Las Meninas, it reminded me of Veronese’s group scenes, which often have a figure staring out at the viewer. And it made me think of a painting closer to us in time: Degas’ La Coiffure (in the National Gallery), where a woman sitting by a table is having her hair combed amid a fiery glow of reds.
Goya: The Portraits casts subtle light on a lineage of painters from whom he learned and drew inspiration, and it shows us how much he in turn inspired future generations. Like Cézanne’s, his art stretches backwards and points forwards while creating something quite startling and exhilarating in its originality. Goya influenced the Impressionists and Picasso and Daumier. Whereas some of his portraits might well be mistaken for the work of Manet, many are imbued with a warmth and humanity characteristic of Rembrandt (his other acknowledged master alongside Velazquez), yet they go far beyond any imitation.
As he worked his way up to the rank of court painter he faced the expectation to flatter his subjects. So many marvels resulted from the inventiveness of his refusals. The first of these commissions presents the Count of Floridablanca as a resplendent frozen ego, momentarily looming out from the shadows of life’s busy claims on him to assume vivid self-importance. There’s an equally modern impact in portraits that reverse this strategy. Goya can give glorious vitality to all that clothes or surrounds a sitter who remains as ugly as the reactionary Ferdinand VII, as cheerfully gormless as Charles IV, or as blank as the Countess of Altamira. Her face is a dull mask; life comes from the miraculous brushwork of her lace and silk finery, the patches of sunlight falling on the sofa. In the portrait of her four-year-old son the child is an exquisitely dressed doll. His dazzling attire almost obliterates the creatures at his feet – the pet magpie held by a string attached to its leg, the three cats goggle-eyed with the urge to pounce, the green cage housing goldfinches – but they’re the ones that truly live and breathe.
These paintings achieve a concentrated power that gives them in essence a quality of abstraction; what the sitter is rather than who, a relation to the world to be considered, more than a simple representation of public status.
Elsewhere, among aristocratic patrons of the enlightened sort, as well as Goya’s circle of friends, liberal writers and artists, the portrait has more focus on the person. There is so much to admire and be astonished by: the particularities of face, dress, posture, the will and character implicit in the clenching of a hand, the planting of legs on the ground, the eloquence of a gaze; again and again the brilliance of technique. And so many of these portraits are modern, not in the sense of likenesses, but in their power of being present, full of salient energy.
The technique can be breathtaking in its perfection. How is it possible to animate not just limbs and skin and features, but velvet and satin and layers of pale transparency, just with paint and light? When there are imperfections they strike as a matter of choice or haste. Goya’s output was prodigious and he worked at famous speed. He had stamina too, apparently: one of the self-portraits here shows him at his easel as the early morning light rushes in through a broad window; he’s wearing a hat with candles placed around the brim, and these are now spent after what we might deduce was a night’s work. It’s dated 1792-95. By then an illness had left him profoundly deaf.
How his deafness affected his work is a matter of endless speculation. It was one of many losses in what was a life of great turmoil that, after the sundry upheavals of war, ended in political exile at Bordeaux. He died aged 82, having created an enormous body of work in diverse artistic spheres where he excelled. He is a towering figure for his engravings alone. The portraits by themselves contain a universe. It’s a rare thing to see them; there are very few in British museums.
Don’t miss this show.