70 portraits by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) are currently shown at the National Gallery in London. Goya appeared in his own paintings, not as a random character like Botticelli did, but as a painter, either painting or presenting a painting.
Indeed, Goya was the leading Spanish painter of the late 18th century, and also court painter to Charles III, Charles IV and Ferdinand VII of Spain. I have never been an aficionado of court portraits though, with a few exceptions such as Moroni’s aristocratic portraits. Goya’s portraits are not one of these exceptions.
In my view, commissioned court portraits are too constrained by the vanity of the subject or commissioner, and primarily serve a public relations purpose. Additionally, they adhere to codes which require to subject to pose in a naturalistic or plain background, with identifiable attributes such as hunting outfit or a book.
I was disappointed by Goya’s depictions of faces and which I think were limited by these conventions of court portraiture. He certainly had a clear mission: to make the Crown approachable. He painted more freely the clothing, such as the magnificent details of the dress in ‘The Countess of Altamira with her Daughter Maria Agustina’ and the velvet in ‘The Marquis of San Adrian’ and ‘The Countess of Fernandez Nunez’.
In the same vein, I much prefer his portraits of friends, such as ‘The Marchioness of Santa Cruz’ and ‘Antonia Zarate’. In particular, I was drawn to his portrait of a close friend and famous actress due to its deep expression, lacking in its court portraits. In ‘Portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate’ executed in 1805 (from the National Gallery of Ireland), Antonia Zárate wears an empire dress and sits on a yellow silk sofa against a brownish background. Her portrait by Goya has a finished aspect compared to other portraits in the exhibition. Her thin mantilla and harmonious curls delicately frame her. Her gaze inspires compassion; while she modestly crosses her hands.
In my view, Goya excelled when he painted without restrictions. In the exhibition five rooms out of seven are dedicated to court portraiture so I was underwhelmed. I was consoled by the superb portrait of Zárate and a few other portraits Goya painted, such as ‘The Marchioness of Santa Cruz’. Goya: The Portraits runs until 10 January 2016 at the National Gallery, London.