Goya & the Portrait
In his engaging study of Goya, the late Robert Hughes identifies three key group portraits that are revelatory of the influences on the painter: the family group of Don Luis; the Family of the Duke of Osuna, and the portrait of Carlos IV and the Spanish royal family (above).1 The first is developed from the English conversation piece, though the self-portrait painting a canvas within a group theme obviously pays homage nearer home, namely Velasquez’s Las Meninas. The Osuna group (1799) does not have the networks of distracted gazes common to the conversation piece; the family all look out towards the spectator;. It also pays court to the tradition of Spanish austerity, again derived from Velásquez: a palette consisting of black, white, green, neutral brown, and a touch of red. The famous group portrait of Carlos IV and his family (1800) has divided opinion as its success as a royal portrait. To some, the composition seems flawed, even comic; the figures stand awkwardly, one looking away while the placing of the king out of step compared to his consort seems strange. However, Hughes has staunchly defended Goya here arguing- with conviction- that the artist would not have endangered his career prospects by playing tricks with an important group commission.2 Leaving aside the possibility of deliberate or accidental “satire” in the portrait of the Royal family, it is clear that in some of Goya’s portraits, there is more than simply an 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. 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?3 In a less arrogant and subdued key, the beautiful portrait of the actress Antonia Zárate with mantilla and fan is infused with melancholia which is probably reflective of the painter’s own mood at this time.
1Robert Hughes, Goya (Verso, 2003), 120