This mainly self-taught artist, whose portraits are the subject of a major exhibition launching at the National Gallery on October 7, rose to be First Court Painter in Madrid, painting the royal family and Europe’s grandest people, including, in 1812, the Duke of Wellington.
Through his candour, Goya made friends with many of his sitters, including the young and ravishing Duchess of Alba, who was so eager to make the most of his skills she one day flew into his studio and commanded him to paint her face — with make-up.
Goya’s birthplace has a church that the artist decorated, one of many religious commissions. His father was a master gilder, his mother from Zaragoza.
The thick-walled house he was born in, the fourth of five brothers and sisters, still stands. Its stone floors, small deep-set windows, and a pantile roof of local clay, were traditional. That same clay produced majolica tiles for the hearth and the church, decorative wares, and earthenware pots.
Life in the main room, with its low ceilings, and its joists made from young tree trunks, centred around the wide hearth, with built-in seating where the family huddled to cook supper before climbing the stone stairs to bed.
Some time after, the family moved to Zaragoza, where at 13, Goya was apprenticed to a painter. After that he worked with another painter by the name of Francisco Bayeu, whose sister, Josefa, he would later marry.
Following a trip to Italy from 1769-71, Goya returned to wed Josefa and begin his journey to fame. It took the couple first to Madrid to live with Josefa’s brother. In 1779, Goya moved his young family to Calle del Desengaño in the city, then on again to another apartment.
Little is known about these homes, but since Goya worked intensely — a self-portrait shows him in an extraordinary brimmed hat with spikes to hold candles, allowing him to work through the night — they may have been basic. He told a friend: “All I need is a chair, a bed, a few pots and pans, and I’ll be happy.” He and his wife had six children, but only one, Javier, survived infancy.
Of his 160 portraits, the music-loving Marquis of Villafranca, Duke of Alba, stands out. The handsome man lounges against a piano inlaid with malachite; there’s a violin on top, and, suave in thigh-hugging silk, the marquis holds a score by Austrian composer Haydn. It’s very far from Goya’s world, but the artist perfectly captures the moment’s lazy charm.
Goya was good at painting families, too. One group portrait shows the daily life of the nobility. In The Family of the Infante Don Luis of Bourbon (1784), the infante’s much younger wife is having her hair dressed in front of a crowd of family, friends and servants, while two maids bring her lace cap on a silver salver. Elderly Don Luis plays cards while others just watch Goya painting it all.
In 1819, Goya bought a fine country house on the outskirts of Madrid near a river, which showed the world that he had arrived. The artist died aged 82, not in his grand house but in self-imposed exile in Bordeaux, France, having left Spain to escape a regime he hated — though he still went back to Madrid to check on his property.
- Goya: The Portraits runs from October 7 to January 10, 2016. Go to www.nationalgallery.org.uk for details.
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