Becoming Goya

This is Goya’s first important portrait—the minister Floridablanca.

It was the beginning of Goya’s climb in society and the rise in his self-esteem. Look at the way he paints himself. It is almost embarrassing. He is the minister’s very humble servant. Goya knew he was a good painter but what was a painter? An artisan—a man on a low rung of the social ladder. He makes pretty pictures for the rich and the powerful. He had better be honored to serve a great man like Floridablanca. And he was, clearly.

Next Goya gets invited to the residence of the King’s brother outside of Madrid. Don Luis doesn’t treat him as a servant but as a friend. He takes him hunting. He seems to like Goya’s company. Don Luis asks Goya to paint portraits of his wife and family and Goya came up with this, showing himself at work but keeping a low profile.

Why did he put himself in the picture?

There was a famous precedent in Spanish painting: Velazquez. In his Meninas (The Maids of Honor) he painted his own portrait, and not a little one. Velazquez was the prince of Spanish painters. He was the king’s friend and he lived in the very palace. That was unheard-of for a painter. Yet Velazquez wanted to be a nobleman and he spent years and a lot of money trying to qualify. Just before he died, with the King’s help, he brought it off; and his son-in-law painted the cross of St. James on Velazquez’s big self-portrait to show the world that the guy wasn’t just anybody.

Goya seems always to have had Velazquez and his big Meninas self-portrait in mind. For years he felt he was a great painter but he hadn’t yet proved it, even to himself. Then his career began to resemble Velazquez’s. He too became the King’s Painter and a friend of the King. The greatest people in the realm came to his house to sit for him. Some became his friends. By the time he was given this commission to paint the royal family, he no longer doubted his own superiority, and his rich and important clients had long stopped dazzling him. Though at the back and in the dark, he stands straight up this time, with his head high, almost as though he were another member of the royal family–certainly the most lucid of the group.

These are two studies, rapid portraits he made in preparation for the big painting. They show the sure sweep of his brush, the quick and strong characterization of his subjects, his bright colors. Spaniards call their princes and princesses “Infantes”.

La Infanta Maria Josefa

El Infante Francisco de Paula Antonio


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13 Responses to Becoming Goya

  1. ivdanu says:

    Man, aren’t those Bourbons an ugly bunch! (except the children, usually)…

  2. 100swallows says:

    Danu: The museum guides tell everyone that Goya made them ugly as his criticism of absolutism and kings in general. I can’t believe that. He certainly spoke respectfully of Charles twenty years earlier in his letters. It’s true a lot happened meanwhile, such as the French Revolution and France’s ridding itself of its aristocrats. This whole family would scram as soon as Napoleon came along (though Ferdinand would be back–and how!). Many people at the time believed that the boy (your only non-ugly Bourbon) was Godoy’s (Godoy was the Queen’s lover)and Charles should have been shown with horns.

  3. erikatakacs says:

    I presume he’s the dark figure in the background shadows of the last painting. Still a far cry from Velasquez’s proud, imposing figure. Too insignificant. Why did he even had to be on the painting?

  4. 100swallows says:

    Erika: Maybe his pride got the better of him. In fact, he was probably not much of a royalist at the time. Some of his important friends had already been accused of liberal (revolutionary) ideas and even exiled. He may have been proud to paint the great picture but also a little ashamed. But you’re right: one would think under the circumstances he could have stayed out of the painting.

  5. cantueso says:

    But which is Goya? I am not surprised that he wanted to be in the picture, but I wonder about the uniform he seems to have put on for the occasion.

  6. 100swallows says:

    cantueso: He’s the man in the drab coat in the shadows on the left, working behind that slanted canvas.

  7. cantueso says:

    !!! I had not seen that one before, and so I thought I had to choose between the two in the foreground that wear those light blue ribbons and half a dozen medals.

  8. wrjones says:

    So, I gather from this story, I need to make friends with a king, or maybe a pro ball player. Then I will feel good about myself and my brush work will improve. Do you have anyone you could introduce me to?

  9. rich says:

    How about portraying some Sheikhs in Doha?

  10. Velazquez’s painting freaks me out every time I look at it (and I’m a fan of Francis Bacon’s work, go figure). It makes me feel like an intruder in a very weird scene, like a David Lynch movie or something. Anyway, great post on Goya. I wonder if he enjoyed what he did. Did his letters mention if he liked his work?

  11. Maille says:

    I always wonder whose of those great spanish painters I prefer more. I still can’t make up my mind. But… without a doubt Goy’s drawings are just unrepeatable!

  12. Richi says:

    Another fine rendition, Swallows.
    Showing in pictures the way Goya rendered himself in those contracted canvases throughout the years. My favorite is the dynamic Don Luis one.

    The comparison to Velazquez” Meninas is fascinating as well.

    On a side note I have remarked that most of the well known painters of former times have been praising Velazquez to the roof: Manet of course, Cezanne; Van Gogh admiring “the grey-tones of Velazquez” in a letter somewhere.
    But haven’t heard Goya being praised that much from those quarters. Maybe I just haven’t come across…

    • 100swallows says:

      Richi: Thanks, though you sent a shiver through me with that word “rendition”, and I had to remember that it also means an interpretation or recital. I don’t know why Goya doesn’t get more attention. Of course his painting technique is nothing revolutionary. (His etchings are.) Like Mozart, he sounds pretty ordinary in his letters. Before he went deaf his pictures were good but not great. But when he couldn’t hear anymore or speak successfully to people he spoke with pictures (not to anyone in particular—the drawings were like impassioned diary entries) and ran them off with the precision and effect of a great writer or orator.

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