Goya’s skill as a portrait painter lay in his ability to capture something of the personality of the sitter, more than simply to record an accurate likeness. He became celebrated as a portraitist relatively early in his career, and royal patronage ensured a steady stream of commissions. More than 200 of his portraits are extant, an extensive output even in the great age of portraiture, and they offer a panorama of Spanish society at the time.
Goya recorded for posterity three successive kings and their families, their courtiers and many Spanish aristocrats. He also painted political potentates — among them statesmen, liberal thinkers and army officers who helped to mould Spanish history — and he painted his friends and associates.
The influence of Velázquez
Goya greatly admired the paintings of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), the eminent Spanish portraitist of the seventeenth century. In 1774, he was asked to design tapestry cartoons for the future King Charles IV, giving him the opportunity of studying Velázquez’s masterpieces in the royal collections. Four years later, Goya printed eleven engravings after Velázquez, the first copies of Velázquez’s works to be made. These include Prince Balthasar Carlos and Las Meniñas. In Las Meniñas (or “The Maids of Honour”), painted by Velázquez in 1656, the little figure of the Infanta Dona Margarita is placed in the centre of the composition. However, Velázquez has ingeniously reversed the emphasis of the painting, making the viewer focus on the painting rather than on the Infanta.
On the left, the artist steps back from a large canvas in order to study his sitters, the king and queen, who are reflected in the mirror on the wall at the back of the room and in whose place we now stand. The Infanta, with her ladies-in-waiting and a court dwarf, has come to distract her parents. In an unusually informal scene, Velázquez has shown himself at work painting his royal patrons and their daughter. Including himself as artist in the picture was a device that Goya was to adopt and to use often.
Royal and aristocratic patronage
More than a century after Velázquez’s death, Goya stepped into the master’s shoes as the leading portrait painter to the court of Spain. When he was first appointed official court painter in 1786, Charles III was on the throne. Charles, a hard-working and enlightened monarch, devoted himself to reforming a country that had scarcely moved out of the Middle Ages. His lifestyle was extremely austere, and his only diversion was hunting, at which he spent several hours each day.
Charles had no defined taste in the arts; in 1761, Anton Mengs had painted him in a formal neo-classical style in armour and regalia of kingship. Goya’s less flattering Portrait of Charles III in Hunting Costume of 1787 is of the man, renowned for his ugliness, who was described by a British diplomat as having “a very odd appearance in person and dress. He is of diminutive stature, with a complexion the colour of mahogany. He has not been measured for a coat these thirty years, so that it sits on him like a sack.”
Charles III respected tradition but at the same time encouraged the cult of liberty, welcoming the ideas of the French Enlightenment as they filtered into Spain. He shrewdly chose capable ministers with clear visions of Spain’s needs and a desire to implement economic and social reform. In 1777, Charles III appointed the Count of Floridablanca, a former magistrate, to the position of Prime Minister. Floridablanca was involved in scores of projects to transform many aspects of Spanish life; in particular, he was concerned with the development of industry and with solving problems relating to agriculture and irrigation.
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. In a traditionally commanding pose, the Count is placed in the centre of the composition and is surrounded by references to his office. An oval portrait of the king presides over the scene and a clock, placed conspicuously on the table to the right of the subject, reflects the regulation and order with which he serves his monarch. The maps on the table and a plan on the floor refer to an important undertaking of his ministry, the building of a canal in Aragón. On the left, is Goya himself, a somewhat bold inclusion even though he is in a position subservient to his patron. As if preoccupied with matters of state, the Count ignores the artist and the canvas held out to him; however, by including himself, Goya alludes to the minister’s support of the arts.
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. Don Luis had been destined for the church — he was made a cardinal aged six and by ten, he was Archbishop of Seville — but his temperament was unsuitable to his calling. In 1754, he renounced his cardinal’s hat, and to the displeasure of the king, embarked on an impious life.
In 1776, aged forty-nine, Don Luis married the beautiful seventeen-year-old Maria Teresa Vallabriga. The king disapproved of the match because she was not of royal blood and Don Luis was forced to remove himself from the court. In the summer of 1783, Goya stayed at their residence at Arenas de San Pedro where he painted several portraits of Don Luis and his family…
Some of Goya’s famous paintings:
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