“There are no rules in painting,” Goya told the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid during an address he gave in 1792. He suggested that students should be allowed to develop their artistic talents freely and find inspiration from their own choice of masters rather than adhere to the doctrines of the neo-classical school. Goya himself was known to have claimed that Velázquez, Rembrandt and Nature were his masters, but his work defies neat categorization and the diversity of his style is remarkable.
Francisco Goya lived for eighty-two years (1746-1828), during which time he produced an enormous body of work – about 500 oil paintings and murals, nearly 300 etchings and lithographs, and several hundred drawings. He was proficient both as a painter and a graphic artist, and experimented with a variety of techniques; even at the end of his life he was a pioneer of the new printing method of lithography.
Essentially a figurative painter, Goya treated an enormous variety of subjects. He became the leading portrait painter in Spain, decorated the churches of Saragossa and Madrid with altarpieces and murals and designed tapestries illustrating life in Madrid. Numerous personal sketch books contain his private observations. Two catastrophic events dramatically affected Goya’s life and his vision of the world. The first came in 1792 when, at the age of forty-six, he was struck by an illness, probably an infection of the inner ear, that left him totally deaf. The second cataclysmic event was the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808, which was followed by six years of fighting for Spanish independence. During the war, hideous atrocities were perpetrated by both sides, and Goya recorded many of them in a series of etchings which are testaments to the cruelty of mankind.
He sympathized with the Spanish Enlightenment, whose members disagreed in principle with all that the court stood for. Disturbed by the social inequalities of the day, the Enlightenment felt that the monarchy, through blindness and neglect, had done little to bring Spain out of the Middle Ages. Goya became a proficient etcher and recorded his personal observations in this medium.
The Portrait of The Count of Floridablanca of 1783 was Goya’s first important portrait commission and one from which he hoped to secure an introduction to Madrid’s official circles. It seems that Goya’s introduction to Floridablanca did not provide him with the opportunities he had hoped for. However, he was lucky enough to be introduced to the small domestic court of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón, the youngest brother of Charles III, through one of his relations. In the Infante, Goya found his first sympathetic patron.
The importance of Christianity in Spain during the eighteenth century is manifest in the number of churches that were built or remodelled at that time. Religious patronage established Goya‘s career in Saragossa, where his paintings of the Virgin, Christ and the saints were in great demand. For much of his life, Goya was involved in large projects for religious foundations. In his early works, he had to conform to the demands of his patrons but, in later years, with his position assured as painter to the court in Madrid, he had the confidence to interpret traditional themes in inventive and daring ways.
The Adoration of the Name of God by Angels glorifies the church triumphant in traditional baroque fashion. In the centre of the composition, the Name of God appears in Hebrew on a triangle, which represents the Trinity. Behind it an explosion of golden light illuminates a host of angels floating on billowing clouds in an infinite space. Goya’s second large undertaking was a series of episodes from the Life of the Virgin painted for the Carthusian monastery of Aula Dei. Of the eleven compositions Goya painted for the monastery’s chapel, only seven survive.
Goya also made a series of paintings for the Duchess of Osuna, who commissioned him to paint both modern and traditional subjects for one of the principal salons of her summer residence on the outskirts of Madrid. The nude is uncommon in Spanish art, owing to church disapproval. In this case, the model is probably Godoy’s mistress Pepita Tudo, a beautiful and celebrated actress, and not, as has been supposed, the Duchess of Alba. As the title of the painting suggests, The Nude Maja has no mythological disguise; she is no goddess, but a woman of the world. Goya was fascinated by women from all walks of life and in different situations.
The Witches’ Sabbath is one of six paintings on the theme of witchcraft that hung in the boudoir of the Duchess of Osuna’s country house, La Almeda. It is not known if they were specially commissioned by his liberal patroness or if she bought them after they were painted.
Inspired by Goya, Jean François Millet and Gustave Courbet painted the working classes and the harsh conditions in which they lived. Other great French painters, Eugène Delacroix and Honoré Daumier to name but two, owe a debt to Goya’s work. Perhaps his greatest admirer was Edouard Manet, who based several of his principal canvases on masterpieces by Goya…
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