Goya: A Portrait of the Artist 
by Janis Tomlinson.
Princeton, 388 pp., £28, October 2020, 978 0 691 19204 8
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The first​ academic book I read on Goya was by Fred Licht, for whom Goya distilled the ‘modern temper’ in art. It was thrilling stuff. Goya, it seemed, was a rebel and a nihilist, who profaned the nude, renounced the Enlightenment, mocked the royal family, championed the masses and anticipated war photography. His work contained in embryo much of modern art to come. I didn’t appreciate at the time that Licht’s book, published in 1979, was simply the latest instance of a long-running critical tendency to reimagine Goya for the present moment, whether as a Romantic, a Naturalist, a Surrealist or a democratic revolutionary. All agreed that Goya captured the predicament of modern man: ‘Undoubtedly Goya has shown himself in these works,’ André Malraux wrote of the prints known as Los Disparates, ‘to be the greatest interpreter of anguish the West has ever known.’

‘Witches’ Sabbath’ (1798) from Goya’s series for the Duchess of Osuna.

In recent years, reflections on Goya’s moral achievement have been replaced by a more rigorous and technical assessment of his style. Academic scrutiny of his studio inventories has considerably shrunk the Goya corpus. In the 1990s, the number of small format paintings attributed to him was slashed from three hundred to 112. This cull has claimed yet more works, with fierce debates over the status of the Colossus – a monstrous allegory of the Napoleonic invasion, held by the Prado but downgraded in 2008 – and the Balloon, a one-time star attraction of the museum in Agen. An unsparing exhibition at Agen in 2019 examined the role of studio assistants in making copies under Goya’s direction, and the unsavoury efforts of his descendants to fabricate lucrative pastiches.

Impatient with the critical tendency to cast Goya as a proto-modernist, Janet Tomlinson’s new biography restores him to his own times. His early years in Zaragoza, where his family moved a month after he was born in 1746, were of enduring importance. Although he relocated to Madrid in 1775, he continued to identify as an Aragonese, and even gave his hometown its Latinised title, Cesaraugustano, in signing his altarpiece for Seville cathedral in 1817. Zaragoza provided the sights that he drew on throughout his career, including bullfights, religious processions and the local hospital (Zaragoza was exceptional in mid-18th-century Spain in having a doctor who specialised in mental illness). Sometimes these memories were unpleasant. In 1760, aged fourteen, Goya watched the auto-da-fé of a local woman accused of practising sorcery. He revisited the event in a drawing made decades later, at a time when the abolition of the Inquisition was under discussion: ‘They put a gag on her because she spoke and they hit her in the face,’ he wrote in the caption. ‘I saw her, Orosia Morena, in Zaragoza because she knew how to make mice.’

Goya’s first big opportunity as an artist came in 1772, with a commission to paint the choir vault in the magnificent basilica of El Pilar in Zaragoza. Yet in 1781 his fresco of Mary, Queen of Martyrs for the basilica was rejected by the building committee – a slight he didn’t forget. To make matters worse, the church authorities appealed to his mentor and brother-in-law, Francisco Bayeu, to touch up the unhappy composition. Goya’s letters rage at the ‘shameful indignity’ with which he was treated, like ‘a mere executor and dependant’. But he couldn’t cut his ties to Zaragoza. His father, a gilder, had died impoverished and intestate, leaving him to look after his mother and the extended family. His wife, Josefa Bayeu, came from a dynasty of artists, and was accustomed to comfortable Madrid living. His family’s security preoccupied him throughout his career, though he often chafed at their demands. Faced with yet another request for help, this time from his niece, Goya erupted: ‘They are holding me hostage … I cannot tolerate any more.’

The recipient of his disgruntlement was Martin Zapater, who would provide a vital sounding board for his friend’s frustrations and fantasies. Zapater had experienced a difficult start in Zaragoza himself, but went on to make his fortune through the buying, leasing and selling of land, becoming so central to the workings of the city that he was eventually ennobled. Despite Goya’s entreaties, Zapater never left Zaragoza, so was well placed to deal with Goya’s affairs in the town. Goya’s letters to him are rich in description and lively conversation, from court gossip, reports of his hunting prowess and the tunes of seguidillas, to frank discussions of masturbation and some remarkable doodles, including a self-portrait of Goya smoking a cigarette. The two men exchanged drawings of their penises (‘Jesus! What a testimony!’ Goya marvelled on receiving Zapater’s letter). During an illness in 1790, Goya told Zapater that ‘with your portrait before me, it seems I enjoy the sweetness of being with you oh my soulmate I didn’t believe friendship could arrive to the stage that I am now feeling.’ He even prepared a room in Madrid where he and Zapater might ‘live together and sleep (a remedy to which I resort when my sadness overwhelms me)’.

Zapater was the first collector of Goya’s work, acquiring his preparatory sketches for frescoes at the Carthusian monastery of Las Fuentes. Tomlinson is particularly good on Goya’s close, sometimes fawning, relationships with his aristocratic patrons. On meeting Infante don Luis de Borbón, the brother of King Carlos III, he boasted to Zapater: ‘His Highness offered me a thousand honours.’ His relationship with this branch of the royal family lasted for decades and gave him the opportunity to take on ambitious projects. The large group portrait of Don Luis and his family, executed in 1784, betrays the influence of Las Meninas, and similarly incorporates a self-portrait, with an immodest allusion to the story of the Corinthian Maid and the invention of painting in antiquity (a motif Goya may have derived from the Scottish artist David Allan, one of whose paintings was on board the frigate The Westmoreland when it was captured by French warships in 1779, its contents dispersed in Spain).

In 1786, Carlos III appointed Goya a court painter. The opportunities at court, however, were limited in comparison with his work elsewhere. He spent much of his early years producing cartoons for tapestries to hang in the royal apartments. The little scenes of everyday life he incorporated were novel, but he found the process a demeaning check on his invención. In 1800 he refused to co-operate with the latest tapestry commission, insisting that he was a painter of ‘histories and figures’.

In contrast, his private clients, such as the Don Luis circle and the dukes of Osuna, didn’t just support him financially (between 1787 and 1788 the Osunas paid him 64,000 reales, the equivalent of four times his annual salary at court); their commissions allowed him to develop new subjects and play with genre. María Josefa Pimentel, wife of the ninth duke of Osuna, ordered frescoes for a chapel in Valencia dedicated to her ancestor Saint Francisco Borja, and rustic decorations for the Osuna country estate at La Alameda, to which she later added a series of six witchcraft pictures (a taste of things to come). Many of Goya’s sitters were sophisticated collectors of art. Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, an advocate of enlightened reform and the subject of one of Goya’s finest portraits, admired and promoted the ‘natural style’ of Velázquez; Jovellanos’s secretary, Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez, was an art historian whose personal collection of unpublished Goya prints has proved fundamental to later scholarship. In his portraits of Bernardo de Iriarte (vice-protector of the Spanish royal academy), Andrés del Peral and the Cadiz print collector Sebastián Martínez y Pérez, Goya marshalled all his vivacity and delicacy as a painter to meet the refined self-image of his subjects.

Then there are the female muses. Although Tomlinson dismisses the notion that their relationship was ever sexual, the Duchess of Alba inspired Goya to new daring. The confrontational full-length portrait, which shows her in a black mantilla and a red sash, is a depiction of a woman in mourning for her deceased husband, but only just. The inscription ‘Solo Goya’, scrawled in the sand at her feet, is evidence of Goya’s belief that only he could produce such a portrait. That said, only an exceptional patron would be willing to countenance posing like this (retained in Goya’s studio, it is possible that the duchess never saw the finished work, or even that she rejected it outright). On hearing of her death in 1802, aged just forty and too mentally ill to receive the last sacraments, he produced a tender and dignified design for her tomb. In a small ink drawing, three eerie figures in long cowls, their faces hidden, gently lay her body to rest in front of a pyramid, a black portal open behind them.

While remaining on his guard, Goya became a staple at court and a member of the cultural establishment. In 1785 he was elected deputy director of painting at the Academy of San Fernando and attended its meetings diligently; although he didn’t subscribe to its ideas about art education, he continued to exhibit there until 1819. He regularly subjected his work – from experimental cabinet pictures to the altarpiece for Toledo cathedral – to the judgment of his academic peers. And he enjoyed the material signs of success. He splashed out on a new barouche, or birlocho, ‘with beautiful shining gilded iron work’. ‘Even here,’ he wrote to Zapater, ‘people stop to look.’ On being raised by Carlos IV to the rank of primer pintor de cámara in 1799, he told his friend to spread the news all over Zaragoza – one in the eye for old rivals. As well as its salary, the benefits of the position included access to royal hunting grounds.

Tomlinson dissents from the conventional view that the terrible illness that afflicted Goya late in 1792 (sometimes described as meningitis, but more probably lead poisoning, a common professional hazard), and which cost him his hearing, marked a great caesura in his life. This isn’t to say that Goya’s deafness wasn’t both disorientating and humiliating; in 1797 he was forced to give up teaching in the academy, having become ‘the object of the boys’ entertainment’. But his friends and patrons made the change easier to bear. Looking back in 1817, Ceán Bermúdez wrote that Goya acquired through deafness ‘a gift of great advantage that is usually not acquired except at such a cost’.

This was manifest in the fluent and varied body of drawings that began to fill his sketchbooks. In the wake of his illness, Goya spent more time reading – he subscribed to a translation of Richardson’s Clarissa – but he also found a new language through sketching in pen and ink, which Tomlinson describes as a ‘graphic stream of consciousness’. Locked in a silent world, he watched from his window the daily dramas that played out on the streets of Madrid, taking in the peacockery of the petimetres, the city dwellers who rushed to embrace French fashions, as well as the beggars and prostitutes who walked the Paseo del Prado. Under each sketch he appended a caption, often darkly funny, in which he commented on the scene.

We don’t tend to think of Goya as an urban artist, yet it is from these vignettes of Madrid life – already sampled in the micro-narratives he threaded through the tapestry cartoons – that Goya moved towards Los Caprichos. The prints are set in a no-man’s land and concern the universal vices of mankind, but they drew on topical plays, court cases, popular customs and journalistic essays. Tomlinson convincingly places the famous Capricho 43, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, in dialogue with articles that appeared in El Diario de Madrid, a newspaper in which Goya placed lost property notices, and knew well. These articles presented dreaming as a vehicle of social criticism, in which the city’s inhabitants were scrutinised in the looking-glass of human understanding.

How subversive were Los Caprichos? The series attracted buyers for the few days it was on sale (the Duchess of Osuna alone bought four sets) early in 1799 and it was withdrawn from circulation not because of pressure from the Inquisition, as is often alleged, but as a pre-emptive measure. Goya feared that his work might be conflated with the views of his enlightened associates, who were subject to a political backlash after the revolution in France. He needn’t have feared: as his Ilustrado friends floundered (Jovellanos was imprisoned for seven years on Mallorca), Goya’s career went from strength to strength. In 1803 he presented the set of eighty original copperplates to the Calcografía Nacional in exchange for a pension of 12,000 reales for Javier, his only surviving child (of seven). The government hoped this would allow the series to be disseminated more widely, although the crisis that consumed Spanish politics in the early 19th century diverted attention to other matters.

The crisis was social, political and financial, and at its heart was Manuel Godoy, the first secretary of state. His sway over the royal family, which showered him with offices and titles, earned Godoy the nickname El Sultán, but he was in fact a moderate progressive charged with the unenviable task of placating a belligerent France. Unlikely to be a specific target of political satire in Los Caprichos, as is sometimes argued, Godoy was a committed patron of Goya, owning 26 of his works. His collection of beauties included Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, given to him by the Duchess of Alba (they certainly were lovers), and as companion pieces, Goya’s pair of Majas. The Nude Maja, a clumsy piece of titillation, was, as Tomlinson argues, almost certainly not drawn from life; The Clothed Maja, painted several years later, was probably painted to go in front of it: it could then be hoisted up by means of a pulley contraption to create a sort of peepshow. So much for the claims that Goya rewrote the nude in Western art.

The fundamental breach occurred not in 1792 but in the years after 1803, as Goya’s friends and protectors began to disappear. The death of Zapater, in particular, has proved a great loss to biographers. Napoleon’s invasion of 1808 toppled the Bourbons and tore Spain apart, causing extraordinary suffering for ordinary people, especially in Zaragoza, which was subjected to two devastating sieges. Madrid, where Goya spent most of the war, was overtaken by famine and disease, which possibly killed Goya’s wife. The city filled with refugees. The old circles of artistic patronage were destroyed: those families that were not ruined, or gone into exile, were regarded as collaborators.

Although he continued to paint, Goya didn’t join the court of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, who was installed as king in June 1808. He acquiesced in drawing up inventories of artworks in Spanish collections to be dispatched to Paris, and produced some superb portraits of Napoleonic officers and their sons. ‘If Goya colluded,’ Tomlinson writes, ‘he did so because of his profession, not his ideals.’ He recorded his personal disgust at the French invasion in the eighty etchings known as Los Desastres de la Guerra. The earlier compulsion to draw following his deafness was repeated in another intense period of work after 1810, executed on whatever scraps of copper he could find, their defects and scratches still visible in the finished image. If at first he considered publishing the prints, he must have realised as the series grew – in brutality as well as in numbers – that there was little public appetite for so uncompromising a memorial.

Los Desastres are often described as photojournalism avant la lettre, but Goya never saw the battlefield with his own eyes. He drew on his imagination, and the examples of an older iconography that included Jacques Callot’s Les Grandes Misères de la guerre (1633), to depict atrocities that coalesced in rumours and nightmares. He did, however, witness first-hand the arbitrary and seemingly unending suffering of civilians. Any joy he felt on France’s withdrawal in 1813 was soon superseded by doubts over the survival of Spain’s fragile new constitution – an anathema to the returning royalists – and increasing civil unrest. The second half of Los Desastres de la Guerra concern the cruelties of peace, with the sub-series of Caprichos Enfáticos exposing the hypocrisy and injustice of the ‘purification’ that followed the restoration of Fernando VII.

Amid the flux in regimes, Goya waited, adapted and endured. The grand equestrian portrait he had produced of Joseph Bonaparte, a nod both to Habsburg traditions and to Jacques-Louis David, was carefully painted over with the features of Arthur Wellesley, duke of Wellington, and now hangs in Apsley House. Goya’s depictions of the popular uprising against the occupiers in 1808 originated, somewhat surprisingly, in orders to redecorate the Buenavista palace, the one-time home of the Duchess of Alba and Godoy, before its appropriation by the returning Fernando. The subject might have been the heroism of the humble citizens of Madrid, commemorated battling with Napoleon’s Mamluk cavalry on the Dos de Mayo, or gunned down the following day by faceless firing squads. But as royal commissions these paintings had no public impact until they were transferred to the Prado after Goya’s death.

In​ her account of the Restoration, Tomlinson has one final revisionist flourish. It concerns the bizarre and disturbing images with which Goya covered the walls of the house he acquired in 1819, on the banks of the Manzanares river, known as the Quinta del Sordo. The murals featured a deranged rabble on a chaotic procession to San Isidro, cultists gathered around a satanic he-goat, the Biblical Judith brandishing her sword and a wild-eyed giant munching on a decapitated torso (the identification with Saturn is contested). Did these images represent a private symbolic language, uttered by an artist who had lost faith in rationality? Or did they capture Goya’s passionate response to another Spanish revolution, the Trienio Liberal, inaugurated by military coup in 1820, and which represented another failed bid for reform?

The problem is with the retrospective designation of the murals as the ‘black paintings’, which Tomlinson considers a ‘title best left unused, given the sombreness of mind and mood it implies, corroboration of an image of the aged Goya, living isolated in his country house, creating dark visions on its walls. For this, there is no basis in fact.’ Viewers encountering the works in the Prado today – slotted into distinct frames and assigned invented titles, distorted by the effects of cropping and retouching – struggle to imagine them originally set into the fabric of the house, separated only by wallpaper borders. As a decorative and narrative ensemble, the series shares affinities with Goya’s tapestry commissions, as well as his witchcraft series for the Osunas at La Alameda. However esoteric, these paintings were intended to be seen: Goya thrilled visitors to his house with scenes inspired not just by his own fantasies, but also by the magic lantern shows and phantasmagorias that were all the rage in Madrid. What critics have read as primal emblems of anguish and tyranny might more plausibly have been a form of homemade gothic entertainment.

The pragmatic portrait of the artist offered by Tomlinson is one that makes compelling sense of the surviving textual evidence. It emphasises Goya’s respect for the masters of the past, especially Velázquez and Rembrandt, and shifts attention to those works that Goya believed would preserve his reputation, such as the dome of San Antonio de la Florida in the Madrid suburbs, which now covers his mortal remains (repatriated in 1919). The destructive impact of later Spanish wars has reduced the surviving number of Goya’s major religious commissions, which he believed central to his legacy, just as shifts in taste have accustomed us to see Goya more as a heretic than a proud servant of the church. His credentials as a political rebel risk being overstated – especially when compared to his attachment to family, patrimony and his own unbending originality. Far from disillusioned in his final years, his lust for life was unabated. After crossing the Pyrenees in 1824, with his still-married housekeeper, Leocadia Weiss, in tow, Goya played the flâneur in the streets of Paris and the fairgrounds of Bordeaux, and experimented with lithography and miniature painting on ivory. Deaf, frail and unable to speak French, the expatriate Goya was, according to the Spanish playwright Leandro Fernández de Moratín, nonetheless ‘so content and so desirous to see the world’.

There is other evidence, however, that can’t be so easily reconciled with Tomlinson’s interpretation. Goya’s prints and drawings sometimes cut against or point beyond the (fragmentary) testimony of his surviving letters, just as the character of the private man cannot satisfactorily be represented by the public record. This new biography says little about Goya’s attitudes to women, for instance, despite the recurring themes of misogyny, prostitution, rape and sexual violence. Similarly, we learn little about his views on religion, despite his anticlerical outbursts (see, for instance, the case against the Holy Office he marshalled on the sheets of Album C). Also absent are his attitude to the plight and absurdity of old age, the theme of some especially poignant and playful drawings. As a result, Tomlinson has provided the most reliable life of the artist to date, but ignores the irrational, refusing to take on what Foucault, writing on Los Disparates, called the ‘madness beneath the mask, a madness that eats away faces, corrodes features’.

This madness wasn’t Goya’s alone. We might also inquire into the sensibility of those aristocratic patrons who wanted to cover the walls of their houses with scenes of black magic, rapacious brigands and feasting cannibals. What shocks modern audiences was once seen as compatible with polite recreation and amusement; Goya named the shipwrecks, fires, botched bullfights and brawling madmen that constitute his cabinet pictures in 1794 a chronicle of ‘national pastimes’. This bitter humour, in which atrocity was blended with invención, horror with aesthetic pleasure, can still catch us off guard. But it tallied with Goethe’s alarm in 1805 that cultivated Europeans had developed an ‘irrepressible craving for the absurd’, throwing over artistic decorum for the extremes of imagination: ‘In defiance of all civilisation, it [the imaginative faculty] revives the instinctive brutality of leering savages in the midst of the decent world.’ Goya painted perversities of which he was himself keenly aware, and he painted them for a public he knew wouldn’t look away.

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