Dogged determination

I once heard Phil Leider say of Francisco Goya that he had only ever truly longed for two things: the career of Diego Velázquez and the love of the Duchess of Alba.

The Duchess of Alba in Mourning, 1797, collection of the The New York Hispanic Society (The Hispanic Society of America)

Maybe that's so.

His last duchess Goya depicted several times, most memorably in an enigmatic painting in which her defiant stance seems to contradict the connotations of her mourning apparel. She points down toward the dust at her feet, where some finger — his? hers? — has inscribed "solo Goya".

Seems like something's going on there. He kept this painting among his possessions from the time of its creation until his death in 1828.

However that may have gone, Leider was surely right about Velázquez, the greatest Spanish painter of the 17th-century, and maybe the greatest of them all — the painter of whom Ruskin supposedly said that everything he does "may be regarded as absolutely right" and to whom Ruskin ascribed "the highest reach of technical perfection yet attained in art."

Why wouldn't Goya want to be Velázquez redux? The earlier artist had lived a charmed life as court painter to Philip IV, under whose auspices he cranked out not only a seemingly endless supply of stock portraiture, but also some of the most psychologically and intellectually compelling images in western art.

It didn't matter what Goya wanted, though. It was not to be. Living through the French Revolution and the Peninsular War, Goya was surrounded by destruction, corruption, incompetence, and folly. Sure, he became court painter — nominally the same position Velázquez had held. But Goya's monarch was an imbecile surrounded by monsters. Recognizing the sad irony of his plight, Goya pulled no punches when it came time to speak truth to power.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid

In the 1650s, Velázquez had created an unprecedented and beloved portrait of his king's young daughter surrounded by her ladies in waiting and some courtiers on the entertainment staff: Las Meninas, as it has come to be called. There she stands, head turned charmingly to one side, while the universe plays out in orbit around her. Off to the side, the painter himself stands facing us, brush and palette in hand, and applies his wizardry to an enormous canvas– one identical in size to Las Meninas itself, the only painting of such a size in his oeuvre.

In the background, a silvery mirror reflects the King and Queen, implying that they're standing just about where we stand when we behold this picture. Is Velázquez painting a double-portrait of them? Is he painting Las Meninas? The puzzle, typically Baroque, dissolves into play as the small fellow in the corner kicks the resting dog. His foot has made contact, but the dog has not yet responded; we're trapped in hang time between the moment of order and the predictable chaos about to ensue. The painter waves his laden brush and weighs his options.

How could Goya, a deeply gifted critic of his world and times, not want the liberty to play such games, and in such style? Called upon in 1800 to portray the extended family of Charles IV, he creates this:


Carlos IV of Spain and His Family, 1800, Museo del Prado

In a knowing and telling play on the earlier artist's work, Goya presents a travesty of Las Meninas. In place of that gloriously wonderful child, the Infanta Margarita, Goya installs the doltish King's draconian wife, Maria Luisa; the turn of her head is the same, but hardly charming. The ignoble royals mill about unharmoniously, a senseless cluster. The woman who failed to show up for her sitting? Goya includes her anyhow, but turns her head away toward the darkness! The King, all decked out in regalia, medals, lace, and velvet? Nothing but periwig and prattle. That child nestled between the king and his bride? People say he looks a lot like the Prime Minister, Godoy.

In the shadows off to the side, behind an enormous canvas, stands Goya himself, just like Velázquez. He seems to sigh.

Like Beethoven, Goya went stone deaf; he lived another 40 years or so in silence as he watched the world tear itself apart. In his 70s, he holed up in a little two story house near Madrid, pondered his failures of nerve and will and fate, and nursed his unsurprising depression. For his eyes only, he filled the plaster walls of this house with oil paintings– dark, brooding, sinister paintings. Saturn (Time) Devouring His Children. The Fight With Cudgels. The Fates.

Quinta del Sordo, diagram, Wikimedia

Perhaps they speak of a heart unfulfilled, these paintings. Perhaps of a Goya who only ever wanted two things. Goya was able to project virtual worlds of his own design, to paint anything his imagination might offer. Looking back on a life that didn't go as he had planned and considering a broken world teeming with corruption, why did Goya surround himself with vivid, symbolic depictions of that same chaos, that old night?

It's something to ponder. It's something to pity.

Francisco Goya, The Dog, one of The Black Paintings. Wikimedia.

Last 5 posts by David Byron

  1. I have always liked the painting of The Dog by Francisco Goya and not just because its's a dog (and our family likes dogs) or because it is also a great painting but also because it just happens to coordinate with the colors of our home and would look totally awesome over the two story stone fireplace in our living room. Is that too gauche and a completely inappropriate demonstration of the appreciation of fine art? I fear my crude country roots are showing, but it's purdy.

  2. "The Dog" was next to the door. He reacts to his Master entering the room. When Goya stood in that doorway, "The Dog" completed the self-portrait.

  3. Wow, you just made an article on my absolute favorite subjects and their contrast. I really appreciate it. I'd never seen how the paintings were arranged in his house before.

    I really liked how Goya actually painted his perceptions of people into his work. Velasquez, whom I agree is the greatest thing to art since bread and perhaps the grains that make it, seemed to paint as if it was a picture. Neither style is better, in my opinion, but I appreciate how Goya goes a step further to try and encorporate personality. The fact that he succeeds is even more remarkable.

    Wonderful contrast in time and change. Goya is a figure to be pitied for sure. Thank you for this piece.

  4. It's also HUGE. 318 cm × 276 cm (125.2 in × 108.7 in)

    It's one of the most referrenced paintings by other artists.

    Have you seen Picasso's conversion of it into cubism?

    I am frequently astounded that this work isn't so widely known. I have friends who have never even heard of this piece. So I am quite happy to see you give it and Goya special mention here. I am new here so I haven't gotten to see many of your articles on art, but I know I'm looking forward to them now.

  5. For the eyes of whatever cast of characters his leadwhite-addled brain happened to be conjuring at the moment…

  6. "Mujeres Riendo" is the truly terrible one. What are they laughing at?

    And I prefer "Kronos" to "Saturn" – the latter being a Roman cognate of the Greek deity.

  7. Thank you for a wonderful comparison of two of my favorite artists. I cover both Velazquez and Goya in my Spanish culture classes, but since I'm not an art expert my explanations have always lacked a certain something. Although I will say this: although the world seems to revolve around the princess in Las Meninas, the artist is right there at the center, along with her. You could say this is just Velazquez the social climber bragging; or you could say it's an expression of the power of art to ennoble subject, spectator, and the artist himself.

  8. To second what Gavin mentioned above, I had the good fortune to see Goya's Caprichos prints in San Jose, CA a couple of years ago. What struck me about them was that I could feel the disgust Goya had for the subjects he was criticizing or making fun of. Quite amazing to feel that from a little print.

  9. Goya went entertainingly-mad from handling lead-white. Gary Busey went entertainingly-mad from crashing his motorcycle without wearing a helmet. Is there much difference? I abhor extra-aesthetic considerations. Insanity is always bizarre but it usually isn't genius.

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  12. At cost to all my sanity, as when one stares at clever abstract pictures that can be viewed as two different things, my head is stuck fast in 'Fight with Cudgels' as it being of two giant spectres fighting over over a rather beautiful landscape. For the life of me I cannot see the quagmire. My brain feels contorted.

  13. You could say this is just Velazquez the social climber bragging; or you could say it's an expression of the power of art to ennoble subject, spectator, and the artist himself.

    Thank you for teaching your students about Spanish artists!

    While there's no doubt that Velázquez was socially ambitious, it's not clear that that's the best explanation for how he presents himself here.

    Velázquez had been born to lesser nobility, and for most of his life he enjoyed as lofty a position as any painter could hope to achieve. By 1656, when he painted Las Meninas, Velázquez was at the top of his career and the top of his game. By 1660, he was dead.

    Velázquez had aspired to be inducted into the Order of Santiago, and this finally occurred in 1659, according to archival documents of that organization.

    Oddly, the distinctive red emblem of the Order appears on the painter's chest in Las Meninas:

    It's very unlikely that the artist would have marked himself this way in that context if he had not been entitled to do so. Maybe he went back and added the cross once he had been inducted, not long before his death. However, there's an old story attached to this detail, and it feels truthy: it is said that Felipe IV so loved and admired his court painter, Velázquez, that when the latter died, Phil himself, to honor his friend, took up a brush and added to V's humble self-portrait this mark of nobility.

    In any event, Velázquez is a marvel of hand, eye, and mind. As much as I admire Las Meninas, his Las Hilanderas is my favorite among his works.

    One of these days, if I have time, I'll explain why.

  14. @Al Re the quagmire, notice how the giants are buried up to their knees in that beautiful landscape.

    Whether this motif is original to the painting is disputed, since they were damaged and restored when transferred to canvas in the late 1800s.

    There's also a dispute over whether the Quinta del Sordo even had a second story. On this theory, everyone has always been wrong in attributing most of these to Goya; they'd actually be the work of some conspirator aiming to cash in.

    Of course, the one advocate of this pet theory, an obscure archivist, bases it on a disputed reading of an ambiguous text, on a tendentious rejection of eyewitness accounts, and on his privileged grasp of what must have been true of urban dwellings near Madrid. Those who dare to question are answered with vitriol and ridicule, rather than logic and cogent argumentation. Needless to say, Wikipedia gives a rather skewed sense of the standing of this theory.

    Whatever, dude.

  15. Good choice on Las Hilanderas. I really like his works that encorporate mythology in his art work. I worked as a blacksmith through college so I am partial to:


    I was introduced to these artists in my Spanish culture class. Goya, Velazquez, El Greco, and Picasso were the artists used for study (Check out the wall painting "Burial of the Count of Orgaz" by El Greco, lots of neat points to study despite me not liking a lot of his other works,

    I cannot thank my teacher enough for introducing me to these people. Most people don't even recognize that Picasso was Spanish (the answer is typically "French"). Keep up the good work teaching.

  16. *incorporate.

    I'll note that Picasso regularly paid homage to many of the Spanish artists, including El Greco.

  17. @David, indeed, that's why I say 'spectre' since they are only partially 'emerged' from the ground, along with their apparent transparency, I still see only a landscape, no mire! :-S

  18. @Al,

    From what I learned when studying it, the idea is that both of these guys are sinking in quicksand but can't be bothered to stop clubbing each other to save themselves.

    If this is the meaning of the painting then it is incredibly poignant and quite apt to the effect of human nature (especially during Goya's war-torn days). Keep in mind that the time period these were painted in sync up exactly with a civil war/revolt against King Ferdinand VII. The black paintings actually sync with the three year revolt entirely and stop once France invades. (1820-1823, maybe coincidence, maybe not?)

    If you look at these paintings in this light, some seem to advocate this point quite strongly. The idea of royality eating its people for fear of them rising up, the brutalities of war on the innocent (Asmodea), and the concept of man killing man when they could be working together (fight with cudgels).

    It is all so very bleak.

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