This Is the Great Goya

Here he is in his studio in Madrid in about 1795:

goya  self-portrait

Self-portrait in his atelier (public domain photo)

He’s doing your portrait.
You have just walked into his studio and are standing where he showed you, in front of that enormous window—one of the biggest you ever saw in 1795.

He stands right in the light, so until your eyes adjust, he’s just a silhouette. Little by little, while he takes little nervous steps back and forth in front of the canvas and makes little sweeps with his painting brush, you start to make him out.

He is short and probably a little chubby, though it’s hard to tell because for this portrait he put on that bolero jacket and pulled those striped leggings over his breeches.   Painters often put on their most extravagant outfits for a portrait for color and interest.  But this jacket looks very much like a belly screen.

And that weird hat?  What’s that all about?

goya self cut 2

He sees you looking and stops to explain. He explains by acting and gestures. Ever since he went deaf the cat got his tongue. He picks up a candle and  sticks it onto one of the prongs around the rim, to show you.  “I paint at night,” he finally says, and goes back to his canvas as soon as he sees you understand.
His son Javier wrote: “My dad used to put on the final touches of a painting, for greater effect, at night, with artificial light.”

But now it isn’t night.
Well, it happens to cover up the bald top of his head. The long hair dropping out underneath would throw anyone off, too.

The palette with his favorite colors is the real thing.  Earth colors, just ten. With those he could do anything he wanted to.

Now he’s doing a  full-length portrait of you—look at the size of his canvas. The beautiful Duchess of Alba stood right where you are standing and watched this same Goya (hatless?)  paint her.

goya duchess alba2

The Duchess of Alba by Goya (public domain photo)

He literally painted her, by the way.  In her capricious way, she walked over to Goya’s studio one morning before a party and asked him to paint her face. Goya was so excited afterwards that he wrote his friend:  “I bet you’d like to come and help me paint [the Duchess of] Alba, who came in here yesterday asking me to paint her face—and she got what she wanted. By the way, I like that much better than painting on canvas, which I will do too, as I have to do a full-length portrait of her as soon as I finish one of the Duke of Alcudia on horseback [Godoy, the most important man in the realm at the time].”  Goya is bragging a little to his friend. The country kid has made the bigtime.

Writing wasn’t his metier.  He was awkward at it and ended even this choppy letter with a drawing—a caricature of himself.  “I’m like this,” he says. He was always making fun of his own flat nose and here he makes his face into a crescent moon.

goya caricatureA caricature of himself by Goya (public domain photo)

He may not have spoken much anymore, and he hated to write.  But he was all the same the greatest communicator of them all.  Few men in any time have been able to bring out of themselves and show so much of a deep and complex world.


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16 Responses to This Is the Great Goya

  1. kseverny says:

    a fantastic history lessen.

  2. Ken Januski says:

    After looking at this for a bit it hit me that the most striking thing is the boldness of the composition: all that light and then mainly dark, with little in between. How may artists would paint a painting that was almost half white, though rendered as an Impressionistic white, with many small color variations?

    I guess he must have had a lot of white on his limited palette. As always a tantalizing glimpse into a great artist that only makes me wish I had time to pursue him further………….

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: It’s true: who would paint a portrait with a background that is so bright it “blinds” the viewer to the figure? Strange. Did he do it as a challenge? And another thing: how was he able to see himself in the mirror like that–all that blinding light? You wonder if he even had a full-length mirror–rare in those times–and had to paint himself in sections. Oh yes, make time for Goya. He’ll surprise you all the time with ingenious creations.

  3. ivdanu says:

    I wrote a long commentary and then…puff! I resume: I did not know about the candle (even if it<s a logical lightning device, even more than vincent in arles – remember Kird douglas ? and I like a lot his signing with a drawing – just like myself with my scarecrow sign! One nmore thing to get me close to Goya, one of my top ten artists of all times! I remember also Feuchtwanger"s biography…

    Great post, G.!

    • 100swallows says:

      Danu: Thanks. I’ll have to see that biography by Feuchtwanger. Michelangelo worked with candles in his hat too. Have you tried that? I remember your scarecrow signature. Do you know anyone else who signed with a drawing? Goya didn’t –only that one letter.

  4. fredh1 says:

    There are other Goya self portraits that are more famous, but this one is special in many ways. The window is rendered “blown out”, as it would be in a photograph. The gaze is intense, engaged. And that candle hat in the daytime! I’ve never worked with a candle hat, but I have worn an LED headlamp!

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Fred. I don’t know “blown out” as used in photography. Actually, I was wondering how Goya’s big window could resist a storm. The LED headlight at least doesn’t drip.

      Some of those who are used to admiring Fred Hatt’s drawings might not yet know that he is an outstanding photographer too. See his latest post:

  5. bellcurve says:

    I can’t find your post about the guy who founded Rome, and I have been looking all over. What happened? Did you — accidentally? — delete it? I have to write a paper on this subject and I was going to take a few hints from your presentation, but don’t worry, I won’t copy it.


  6. erikatakacs says:

    What a good read, Swallows!
    This self portrait shows Goya, the painter. He doesn’t reveal much more about himself than that intense gaze. Do you know about his working style, habits?
    I like his other self portrait better, with his guard down, is Goya, the man. The one you feel you could have a conversation with:

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: Thanks. More on Goya another time. Don’t forget, he was stone deaf, so a conversation with him would have been frustrating for both of you. I don’t know why they made your linked portrait so orange. The original, though dark (maybe it needs cleaning too), is more like this:

  7. wrjones says:

    I’m going looking for a “belly screen” to paint in and a Stetson. However, I think I will forgo the candles and just watch TV at night. Don’t want to burn off those remaining strands of hair.

    • 100swallows says:

      Bill: That Stetson sounds just right. I don’t know if artists’ supplies stores carry belly screens but I will look around. Didn’t you ever wonder how those old painters managed with so few daylight hours and so many dark days? Goya somehow got himself a real dream window here but most painters would have had small ones, too, and couldn’t even catch much of the good light. Candle light must have given a yellowed look to all the paintings.

  8. Not on Goya’s self-portrait, but Velázquez. I think you’ll find this interesting: Scholarly Smackdown: Is Velázquez the Subject of the Met’s “Rediscovered” Velázquez?


    • 100swallows says:

      Judith: Thanks a lot for the news and the link. What do you think? I do see a slightly-upturned nose (the tip) in the Valencia portrait but not a “ski-jump”, and I’m not sure it isn’t a misleading effect of the light. Like everyone else, I keep looking at the four portraits (the Meninas, the Met and Valencia portraits, the Surrender) and can’t decide if they are all of the same man, but they could be. I once saw a death-bed sketch of Velasquez (by Juan de Alfaro) but I can’t remember where (maybe its authenticity is questioned) or whether it would help about the nose.

  9. Pingback: Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge Day 28 #HAWMC: The first time I… : Mourning Has Broken

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