“Imagine standing in front of Los Caprichos, a man full of curiosity, an art-lover, quite ignorant of the historical events that several of these plates allude to, simply a sensitive, artistic mind, knowing nothing of Godoy, or King Charles or the Queen; nonetheless he will experience, in the recesses of his brain, a lively commotion, because the artist’s original manner, the fullness of his composition and his sureness of hand, and also because of the fantastic atmosphere that envelopes all his subjects.”
Charles Baudelaire on Goya.
Let us look at the problem from the other side: imagine an art lover standing before Goya’s portraits in this exhibition; how might the “fantastic atmosphere” of Los Caprichos (and by extension all Goya’s subjects) be conveyed via the portraits of Spanish monarchs, aristocrats, generals, many of whose effigies hang in this show. This may present a problem. If this were a presentation of portraits by Reynolds, Lawrence or similar, the question of imaginative creation in relation to portraiture would not concern us so much,- but this will not stand with Goya. As for historical knowledge: I cannot speak for Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century Parisian amateur, but I suspect that most modern museum-visitors living through this era of ubiquitous historical amnesia are unlikely to have their brains encumbered with information about Charles IV, his minister Godoy and that individual’s liaisons with the “Messalina of Spain, “Queen Maria Luisa, yet alone have inklings of the nightmarish side of this period of European history conjured up by a master magician of the brush and pen through Los Caprichos. This is unfortunate as awareness of the historical commotions behind the portraits is essential for understanding their conception and significance. Goya painted in a Europe shattered by events: the Spanish intellectual inheritors of the French Revolution (illustrados, or enlightened ones, and some of his patrons depicted by him fell into this category) clashed with the forces of tradition, in the shape of the Inquisition and the Monarchy; to exacerbate matters, the weak Bourbon dynasty were virtually vanquished by an insistent Napoleon with resultant chaos and the pell-mell of civil war, calmed by the Duke of Wellington, whose portrait is of course here; Goya seeing no hope for his country, ended his days in Bordeaux, a sadder but wiser exile. And all these upheavals were accompanied by scenes of unimaginable cruelty and barbarity by a society animalised by circumstances, which Goya captured for posterity, allusively in Los Caprichos, and more unambiguously in his Los desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War), arguably the forerunner of today’s media-saturated reportage. That a selection of his portraits has been laid before the public is praiseworthy; but there is the lingering suspicion that the purity of the theme, “Goya’s Portraits,“ had to be maintained at all costs; no other genre – with the exception of the ghastly Empire style reclining Marchioness of Santa Cruz as a muse, an bland confection of formal portrait and mythology- seems to be present to impair the exhibition theme. Does this portraits-only strategy really matter? Most certainly! Another way of directing this exposition would have been to augment, and therefore enhance the portraits with a few works from other genres.
One of the few buyers of Goya’s Los Caprichos was the Osuna family who are represented in some of the portraits hung in the earlier rooms of this exhibition. The most impressive is the group portrait of the Family of the Duke of Osuna (1788) which is an academic triangle of a composition offset by a linear accent structuring the heads of three of the children. Despite demonstrating great skill with, for example, its delicate tonal transitions, the picture doesn’t succeed as a unity; the Duke is painted in stiff, formal black whilist the Duchess is rendered in a much more visually satisfying dress of pink and grey. A few years earlier Goya had painted one of his most famous group compositions, a portrait of the Infante Don Luis and his Family (1784) (top of page). Don Luis was the disgraced brother of Carlos III, whose portrait as a huntsman is also in the show. Though Don Luis, and to his amusement Goya, were keen cacciatores or huntsmen, the painter crafted something more audacious for the snubbed Infante and his entourage. Don Luis is shown in formal attire and strict profile, whilst his wife clad casually in a shimmering eye-catching peignoir (which functions as a central light source) looks out with an air of boredom towards the spectator. The Infante’s children and members of the household congregate around the central couple; but the most startling element is the inclusion of the young Goya himself, painting at his easel, almost certainly in homage to his illustrious predecessor Velasquez who in Las Meninas played on the idea of painting a picture which is simultaneously seen by the viewer. This is not the first time Goya had insinuated himself into a picture. In the same room can be seen his portrait of Conde de Floridablanca (1783), chief minister to Carlos III which shows a fresh-faced subservient Goya presenting a picture to his minister- again, presumably the portrait in front of our eyes?- and where both are under the regal gaze of Carlos III “present” in a portrait on the wall. This, in the jargon, is a “meta-narrative” device of situating the painter within the structures of power whilist representing that hierarchy in the form of an collective portrait, which will culminate in the absent portrait of Carlos IV and his Family (1800) hanging in the Prado. Recalling my sessions all those years ago in the dusty seminar rooms of academe, I was taught that Goya had deliberately flouted the pattern of patronage by rendering the royal family awkwardly, almost as if to ridicule the Spanish throne and its authority. It was only after reading Robert Hughes’s Goya that I realised that I had swallowed an art history canard because the Australian critic convincingly argued away any “satiric intent”; one of his reasons being that Goya would have had to do “no fewer than ten preliminary portrait studies for his sitters,” all subject to royal approval. The same caveat should be applied to the earlier ensemble paintings like the Don Luis group which despite its uneven composition indicates no disrespect or satire, which as Hughes rightly said requires an audience.
Even if one discounts evidence of satire and disrespect in Goya’s portraits, it is clear that in some of them, there is something occurring than simply a mere attempt to paint a likeness of a socially elevated subject. What else is to be expected given Goya’s deeply troubled personality? In the portrait of the young Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1790s), the atmosphere of the nursery is clouded by the presence of menacing animals like the wide-eyed trio of cats staring at an innocent magpie that pecks at a calling card bearing Goya’s name, all of which could mean what? The spirit of Los Caprichos pervades this perplexing picture: the cats seem to presage the creatures of the night in Los Caprichos where a wilder version of their species, the lynx stares balefully in that visual cauchemar where the sleep of reason produces monsters. Monsters were always latent in Goya’s mind, and this, alloyed with a pulsating imagination afforded Goya the opportunity to create a personalised iconography, the meaning of which would have to be found by dredging the depths of his mind as well as searching through the world and natural history for his fund of symbols and themes. Sometimes the portrait is taken out of the interior and explicitly set down in nature as if to emphasise the hidden links between the world and painting. The wonderful and celebrated portrait of the Duchess of Alba (1797) places the dazzling beauty on the banks of some silted-up river in the middle of a forlorn looking landscape. The portrait might be interpreted as a kind of allegory on the painter’s ambitions and social standing given that Goya may have been romantically entangled with the fabled aristocrat. Transfixing the viewer with her imperious gaze, the index finger of Alba’s right hand points down to the famous inscription in the soil: “Sola Goya.” Does this mean that Goya was the only man for her? This reviewer senses something more fatalistic, resigned about this portrait; it could almost be seen as a grand portrait in the Reynolds or Lawrence vein allegorised into a personalised momento, or even a momento mori. No skull, but the artist’s name is written in the earth, the painter’s (and of course our) future destination. “Dust thou art; and to dust thou shalt return.” It is also from the earth that the artist’s pigments are obtained in which case Alba could be seen as a kind of Spanish “Pittura” who advertises the artist’s painterly éclat with the splendid passages of the jet black mantilla, the gold of the blouse, and crimson of the sash. Mention should also be made of the portrait of Ferdinand Guillemardet, French Ambassador to Spain (1798) which boasts a bravura military “still-life” of sash and sword emblazoned with the colours of the tricolour and a gold tassel.
No exposition of “Goya’s Portraits” would be complete without images of the artist himself- and in this we are not disappointed. On canvas, paper and etching plate, Goya probably represented his self-image about a dozen times, which offers ample opportunity to track his self-representations. The paintings would include the inserted painter in the Floridablanca presentation, the seated painter at his easel in the Don Luis group which have already been commented on; but in addition to these, there are a number of “artist-in-his studio” self-portraits and a memorable self-portrait with the physician who saved his life. The best of the early self-images is the one of 1794-5 showing the successful painter in his studio standing, or more accurately posing in front of a mirror; the upper part of Goya’s body is framed by a window through which refulgent light enters, a painterly symbol of perhaps the Enlightenment itself? This is contemporary with Los Caprichos as is a smaller self-portrait at the easel which Goya may have given to the Duchess of Alba. Here the model may be David’s neo-classical self-portrait of the same decade: both use the rear of the chair as a prop, though in David’s picture, the ovoid accent is repeated on a smaller scale by his palette; whilist in Goya’s self-portrait the oval chair is contrasted starkly with the sharp diagonal of the easel. No manual instruments of painting are to be seen, and the confrontational gaze of Goya strengthens the idea of a mental transaction between artist and viewer in which the tools of painting remain hidden, an idea also inferred from Goya’s concealment of his hands in the portrait. Amongst this group is the pen and wash self-portrait from the Met which has much the same kind of determined stare as the oil self-portrait; Goya’s name is written mysteriously upside-down on a badge of honour he wears; the sheet dates from the time of recovery from the disease that would cause his deafness. The later group of self-portraits begin with one of a much older, literally unbuttoned Goya whose unflinching look of angry farouche youth has been exchanged for one of defeated, resigned old age. This very Rembrandtesque self-portrait was painted in 1815, at a time when Spain, finally, was being forced to enter the modern age: the Spanish War of Independence had ended; and the Spanish Inquisition, complete with its carozza (dunce’s cap) and people-burning side-shows would slide into terminal decline. This is the portrait of an exhausted survivor who has only the certainty of the decrepitude of the body and final death in prospect. In fact Death would come for Goya again in 1819, in the form of an unknown illness from which he was saved by his friend, the physician Dr Arrieta who was a plague specialist, and who may have saved Goya from yellow fever. In this very moving self-portrait (top of section), Goya included his doctor who props up the bedridden painter while administering a curative to him from a vessel. Goya seems to respond by frailly feeling for the counterpane, forming a mountainous shape rising up from the horizontal ledge on which is inscribed Goya’s gratitude to Arrieta for saving his life. Goya had treated doctors fairly harshly in Los Caprichos, turning one into a donkey callously waiting for his patient to expire; but in his Self-Portrait with Dr Arrieta he created a pictorial tribute to medicine whilist honouring one of his intellectual friends produced by the scientific enlightenment. Yet, the painting isn’t entirely devoid of religious or superstitious themes: the composition resembles a modern pietá; and the ghostly heads lurking in the background suggest the life beyond death to which the artist would have been snatched if Arrieta had not prevented it with his science.
Goya is part of my art history education. At university, I took a course on revolution and romanticism which featured such socially engagé writers and painters as Blake and Goya. Our opinions were solicited on such visual conundrums as Goya’s Portrait of Charles IV and his Family, understandably not in this exhibition; one could expect the Prado only to lend some minor loans, and the group portrait of the Spanish royal family is, inevitably, sacrosanct. After university, I managed to retain my fondness for the artist; over the years I have accumulated a small number of books on the Spanish genius; these range from catalogues to the late Robert Hughes’s highly personal excursion into the hinterland of Goya. Wether one is writing a maverick book like Hughes’s Goya, or compiling a more conventional presentational aid, like an exhibition catalogue, it is an article of faith that attempts should be made to show the social climate and historical situation out of which the works emerged. As I’ve suggested, this may be difficult with the “portraits-only” rule. But if one were looking for a link between Goya’s portraits and the wider world, perhaps it could be found in his Self-Portrait for Los Caprichos, the socially trenchant and stylistically progressive set of aquatints which keenly lay out the panorama of Spanish society, observing the behaviour of monks, doctors, whores, inevitably witches, even animals, through an unforgiving, almost Swiftian eye. A top-hatted, embourgeoised Goya shows himself in profile, but with his left eye slyly looking outwards, interpreted by one theorist of portraiture to suggest the artist keeping a weather eye on Los Caprichos themselves; and by extension the viewing public for whom they were made, and to whom they were completely incomprehensible resulting in financial failure and critical opprobrium for the embattled artist. This ambivalent portrait of Goya might be seen as an emblem of the relationship between the portrait and the world, which this exhibition, due to the purity of its theme, will struggle to impart to the modern viewing public.
Nevertheless, “Goya’s Portraits” is thoroughly recommended if you wish to view a good selection of formal portraits, most of which are imbued with the restless spirit of one of Spain’s greatest masters. However, I can summon up no iota of enthusiasm for the rooms in which these paintings are displayed. This is not for the faint-hearted: you must be willing to tolerate the cramped and crowded exhibition rooms in the National Gallery, and the pictures are ill-served by these regions. Plunging down the precipitous steps into the basement seems more akin these days to a descent into the Inferno where one becomes an agitated and colliding particle swept up and borne off by the whirlwind of people, cameras, audio-guides, and the whole paraphernalia of that infernal device- the modern blockbuster. And anyway, thanks to “official gallery” policy, lots of these pictures are roped off which makes close viewing of the brushwork and facture difficult, although connoisseurial scrutiny of the pictures is increasingly frowned upon in museums these days. Struggling to look at the lovely portrait of Goya’s friend, the actress Antonia Zárate, in the midst of the madding crowd, I recall the time I saw the portrait in a deserted room in the National Gallery of Ireland. Sola Goya, no crowds.
 Goya in ‘Quelques Caricaturistes Étrangers.’ “J’imagine devant les Caprices un homme, un curieux, un amateur, n’ayant aucune notion des faits historiques auxquels plusieurs de ces planches font allusion, un simple esprit d’artiste qui ne sache ce que c’est ni que Godoï, ni le roi Charles, ni la reine ; il éprouvera toutefois au fond de son cerveau une commotion vive, à cause de la manière originale, de la plénitude et de la certitude des moyens de l’artiste, et aussi de cette atmosphère fantastique qui baigne tous ses sujets.
 Robert Hughes, Goya, (Vintage, 2004), 227
 As counted by Juliet Wilson Bareau and Manuela B. Mena Marqués, Goya: Truth and Fantasy; the small paintings, (Prado and Chicago, 1994), 256.
 Hughes, Goya, 373.
 Richard Brilliant, Portraiture, 168.