Why suck up to anyone?
A report on the Goya exhibition at the London National Gallery
By Magdalena Polak
Being a sympathiser of the French Revolution and court painter to the Spanish king at the same time is not an easy thing to do. How must Francisco de Goya have felt when, at the age of 68, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Ferdinand VII, the very same man who reintroduced both absolutism and the inquisition in Spain?
The answer is simple: he portrayed his subjects as they really were. No glorification or Photoshop were applied here. Instead, Goya’s portraits have almost a satirical aspect. Why suck up to anyone? The king is short, has thick thighs, and carries an expression that is at the same time arrogant and deceitful. Better portray him like that then.
Going to the exhibition “Goya- The Portraits” at the National Gallery in London is like stepping into a time machine that takes you to the Spanish High Society of the early 1800s. His vast portrait collection provides a deep insight into his variety as a painter. Goya painted the intellectual thinker as well as the powerful but brutal monarch, while always making sure to plant an element of the ridiculous into them. To quote my friend: “This is like flipping through a 200 year old gossip magazine.” Only here it is the Queen of Spain who is shown to have gained weight after a pregnancy, mark you, not the second, but the 11th pregnancy.
Naturally, a certain reputation needs to precede you if you are going to paint your King’s thick thighs in such elaborate fashion and get away with it. For Goya, it was that of an extremely talented painter, who understood realistic representation of his subjects, as well as really emphasising their presence in the painting. It seems that Goya’s style was influenced by English portraitists of the 18th century, such as Thomas Gainsborough. Both applied dark colours and simple backgrounds as well as light effects to really make their subjects stand out. It can be presumed that Goya’s patrons were not after an idealistic representation when commissioning a portrait. But Goya’s paintings do mark their presence. It seems as if the subjects were about to move their heads, but quite likeable nor idealised, which makes the figures oddly personal.
Talent alone is not enough to guarantee a successful career. This is as true today as it was in the 19th century. Francisco de Goya understood that and when looking at his portraits, we can easily detect a marketing genius. Let us take, for example, the portrait of the then two-year-old Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga. At his feet is positioned a magpie, who is very shamelessly holding Goya’s business card in its beak, giving the viewer of today precise details of how and when one can reach Goya. Only the phone number is missing to make this a perfect advertisement hanging in the London Underground.
Similarly, though maybe less subtle, is Goya’s self-promotion in the portrait of the Duchess of Alba, who was very likely his lover. The Duchess, who is presented in a proud and majestic posture, is pointing towards the ground, where the words “solo Goya” are written into the sand. A declaration of their love? A marketing concept added by Goya? Maybe both? One can only guess.
Francisco de Goya. Sympathiser of the French Revolution, portraitist to the Spanish High Society, Marketing Genius, Comedian. The National Gallery succeeded in putting together a highly entertaining and beautiful exhibition