Goya, limited by conventions 

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.

  Condesa de Altamira and Her Daughter, María Agustina 

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. 


Portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate

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.

6 responses to “Goya, limited by conventions 

  1. The vanity (and often disagreability, and implied silliness) of those represented on the official portraits is indeed striking. I did not find it boring though. But, on the contrary, it appears daring; commissioned portraits are supposed to be flattering, otherwise the orders dry out. The faces on these portraits feel like caricatures to me. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that Goya did not favour “anciens regimes” or else by his taste for irony (source: http://goya.unizar.es/InfoGoya/Life/Ideologia.html) And the fact that he could get away with it confirms correctness of the intelligence level of the sitters implied by his portraits 🙂 But maybe I am wrong, my perception might be off.

    • I wonder if there is literature about it, but I saw a clear difference between his (dull) commissioned portraits and (deep) portraits of his friends. Could you pls expand on the intelligence of the sitters? 🙂 Thanks for your comments, Yulia.

      • Well, I would not be qualified, but there are a few relevant videos on YouTube, e.g. this analysis of Goya’s depiction of Spanish royal family https://youtu.be/TlvXGblFsv8 and Art Fund’s introduction for the exhibition we are discussing, https://youtu.be/m0gVhw4VUZA. There are more videos, but most are in Spanish. I have read a book about Goya by Feuchtwanger, but I now think that it is very fictionalised, thus I would not recommend it as a reliable source. Debatably, Goya’s etchings might offer a quicker way to see his inner world and appreciate the scale of his demons. Also, very-very debatably, I think Francisco Goya’s vision of the world is not dissimilar to Francis Bacon’s, the difference in their paintings comes more from the fact that, as you mention, Goya was restricted by conventions of his time.

      • Thanks for the links, Yulia! I like this kind of books and have read a few but indeed it is difficult to distinguish fiction from facts – hopefully some are correct!

  2. Hi my cultural friend,

    Many thanks for your latest email, could you please update your records to include this address as I’m trying to delete my “ntlworld” account.

    Yours in Art

    Terry Francis @TEZZA150 on Twitter +44 (0)7966 194872 terry.francis150@gmail.com

    🎨 🎶 😉 ✌️

    Sent from my iPhone


Leave a Reply to lafeeculturelle Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s