Saturn Devouring His Son cemented the artist’s reputation as a merchant of nightmares, an ambassador to the harrowing abyss, but with Goya: The Portraits we’re invited to view his less horrific, less kid-chewy body of work. You won’t find a single child being eaten alive by his dad here, unless something’s gone terribly wrong at the National Gallery.
Goya spent most of his life in the comfortable employ of the Spanish aristocracy of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, painting his sitters in an enlightened and modern style that blew royal minds left, right and centre. His growing popularity matched with his close friendships with the nobles bagged him the enviable position of Painter to the King, and it was his keenly empathic relationships with his subjects that allowed him to paint them in a candid and unpretentious style.
Don’t expect to see the Marquis of Villafranca doing the dishes, but do look out for the bulbous nose of King Charles III of Spain rendered with unflattering frankness, as he poses during a hunt, all warm smiles and friendly eyes. Neither did Goya make any attempt to play down the diminutive stature of the Count of Altamira, painting him as he did sitting on a short, custom-made chair next to a relatively tall table on which the Count rather awkwardly rests his arm.
Goya wasn’t dragged outside and shot, instead he was loudly celebrated by liberal statesmen who appreciated the artist’s honesty, and his ability to portray his sitters as approachable everymen and women. Thoroughly ingratiated, he produced his most famous portrait in 1797, that of the Duchess of Alba (right), which shows her pointing sternly at the words “solo Goya” in the sand at her feet.
“Only Goya may paint me,” is the diva’s message. “Everyone else can do one.”