Goya: recorder of turbulent times

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In 1814 Francisco Goya, who was almost 70 years old, was commanded to paint the portrait of the restored king of Spain, Ferdinand VII. Ferdinand’s father, Charles IV, had appointed him first court painter to the king 15 years earlier.

Since then there had been a furious battle in Spanish society over the direction of the state. Goya was in a perfect position to record these tumultuous shifts.

There were few secure career paths open to a painter at that time. Goya had been an ambitious provincial artist and he moved to the capital, Madrid, at the first opportunity.

He worked designing tapestries for the royal palaces. It was not until he was 43 years old that he was appointed a court painter.

The new National Gallery exhibition focuses on this aspect of Goya’s work, his portraits.

Charles’s cousin Louis XVI of France had been executed during the French Revolution and the Spanish king was keen to portray himself as an ordinary man. In Goya’s portrait Charles IV in Hunting Dress his appearance is that of any other landed aristocrat.

In contrast Ferdinand reinstated the divine right of kings — he was god’s anointed representative on earth, and his portrait had to reflect this. Goya’s Ferdinand VII in Court Dress is a riot of dazzling effects.

The artist has a wonderful ability to create contrasting textures and he captures the crimson velvet cape with its ermine lining magnificently.

The sparkling gold brocade trim and royal chain of office are rendered in thickly encrusted layers of paint and varnish.

This would have delighted the king. And yet the viewer cannot escape the thought that Ferdinand looks like a complete fool. His puffy red face and pompous swagger are reminiscent of a Steve Bell cartoon in the Guardian.

What can we read into this? Although the exhibition catalogue is at pains to say Goya was a patriot who believed in the monarchy, he was also a firm supporter of the European Enlightenment.

This democratising movement raised the notion that everyone should have equal rights under the law.

Goya developed lasting friendships with many of the progressives who sat for portraits. These included poets, writers, reformers, businessmen, ministers, even the French ambassador.

His paintings of women are particularly fascinating. The Countess-Duchess of Benavente is represented with unusual wisdom and intelligence. The Duchess of Alba, the second highest ranking woman in Spain, is imperious in her traditional widow’s dress.

Goya excels at representing style and fashion and these give great insights into the character and aspirations of his sitters. Jewellery, embroidery, lace and silk are executed with great subtlety. The way light dances on the different textures can be breathtaking.

Some Spanish reformers looked to Napoleon Bonaparte’s “enlightened absolutism” as the best way of modernising Spain. Goya was associated with many figures from this group. Limited reforms took place, including abolition of the Inquisition.

But Napoleon’s imperial ambitions provoked many Spaniards to take up arms against the French invaders. During the prolonged period of guerrilla war that followed, Goya produced a series of etchings called The Disasters of War.

They remain truly shocking images and there is little or no distinction for Goya between the French army and the Spanish guerrillas.

In June 1813 British and Spanish troops retook Spain and restored the dreadful throwback Ferdinand to the throne. There were waves of arrests of liberals.

Goya, who managed to retain his post throughout this turbulent period, was commanded to paint Ferdinand’s portrait. The artist had such good insight into the personality of his sitters he knew the king would be too arrogant to realise he had been made to look like a ridiculous peacock.

Goya faced continued suspicion, though, and he was hauled before the reinstated Inquisition to explain his painting of a nude woman.

Disillusioned by political and social reaction, in danger from his beliefs and troubled by serious illness, the ageing painter’s outlook became increasingly bleak.

The focus of the exhibition means that we don’t get to see many of his later works such as the “Black paintings”. Nevertheless this is a magnificent show, bringing together 70 works from private collections and major international museums.

The National Gallery’s new director Gabriele Finaldi came to an agreement with strikers just days before the exhibition opened (see round table discussion with strikers). It is no doubt a coincidence that Finaldi’s previous job was at the Prado museum in Madrid from where many of these works have been loaned.

In Goya’s day capitalism represented progress. Today it is a dead weight crushing all aspects of humanity.

Culture being treated as a business means downward pressure on the wages and conditions of museum employees. It also leads to museums attempting to increase revenue by putting on these “blockbuster” exhibitions.

I feel fortunate to have seen some absolute masterpieces here, though the ticket price of £18 may put some people off.