Goya: The Portraits. National Gallery. Until 10 January 2016
The Goya exhibition at the National Gallery shares something with The World of Pop by bringing to the attention of our eyes an aspect of his art that had previously passed us by. Goya is not famous for his portraits — but if you’ve seen his ‘Antonia Zárate’ in Dublin (loaned to London for this show) you’ll know he can paint people like an angel — but he earned his keep by turning them out for rich patrons and only now, by bringing together so many of them, is it possible to take in his extraordinary achievement.
His pure skill as a painter reveals itself in the ability to render those parts of the human body not hidden in costumes or layers of clothing; witness the fine skin and eyebrows of Maria Teresa de Vallabriga, the young wife of Infante Don Luis. Goya was hired by the royal couple as a portrait painter and he grew to like them as people capable of being themselves, not straitjacketed by court protocols. And when painting the Duke and Duchess of Osuna with their children Goya seems equally enamoured by their personal qualities and portrays them with a sense of animated informality.
Goya did not warm to everyone he was paid to paint. With the unashamedly unattractive Charles III of Spain, Goya manages to make him look as avuncular as the enlightened despot himself liked to be seen but it remains an unflattering portrait; think of Britain’s Prince Charles and his gormless grin. Goya’s first big commission shows the Count of Floridablanca, a very powerful figure in Spain but reduced to a preening mannequin by the artist, and here, as with many of the portraits he went on to paint, character is revealed in dress and posture. Yellow velvet breeches speak sensuality; a Tricolore sash and plumed hat indicate excess self-assurance; awkward carriage conveys a giddy personality; tight pantaloons suggest swagger; a bravura display of medals on a general bespeaks a possible war criminal.
Complete honesty comes with Goya’s paintings of himself and, sprinkled amongst the portraits of dignitaries and aristocrats, they will hold your gaze and respect. The smallest of them shows him painting at an easel and no attempt is made to disguise what he looks like: too old (he was fifty) for his dandy dress, fixing the viewer with an insouciant ‘you talkin’ to me?’ stare.