Review of 'Goya: The Portraits,' at the National Gallery

November 15, 2015

I first came to love the work of Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) when I stumbled across Los Caprichos (1799) at the age of 16. This gave me an idea of Goya as the disillusioned republican, laughing at the world with which he was surrounded. This perception of the artist suited me very well at the time, fitting with my teenage angst and listening to Linkin Park albums far too frequently. While this is not a particularly accurate reflection of the character and genius of the artist that I now recognise, I would relate to anyone interested in visiting the National Gallery’s new exhibition “Goya: The Portraits” a single phrase spoken by Goya to his friend Martín Zapater in 1786, “I would do nothing for anyone.” The defiant and undeniably honest words of Goya shines through in the National Gallery’s new exhibition. Presented chronologically through several rooms, Goya is seen to be a portraitist capable of distilling the essence of his sitters; rather than idealising them or hiding their flaws (as so many other artists might), he displays them in their humanity. The unflinching nature of this gaze is nowhere more clear than when Goya depicts his own son, Javier, as foppish and vain, pairing him with a feminine-looking dog. In another instance we see this same scathing eye turned to the King Ferdinand VII, who even in his scarlet robes and ermine cannot conceal the grotesque soul of a man who has seized power from his own father. Stylistically, Goya reenforces his dissection of his sitters’ characters by employing austere backgrounds in a style reminiscent of 17th century Dutch portraiture. This austerity is often extended to the artist’s palette which again achieves an expressive excellence through its reduced nature. The minimal nature of the works chosen for the exhibition, guide the viewer to focus with close scrutiny on the expression and posture, at which Goya invariably excels. This is not to say we don't get an impression of the artist's development throughout the exhibition, but also that he, having come to portraiture at the age of 37, started from an incredible level of competence and only improved from there. His later works, such as his lithograph of Cyprien Gaulon, have the ability to capture his sitters soul through micro-expression. This develops from his earlier works that are, while admirable, highly derivative of Mengs. This progression shows how adept this Master had become by the time of his death in Bordeaux.

 

“Goya: The Portraits” runs until the 10th of January and costs £8 for students.

 

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