Sunday, 25 October 2015

Goya: The Portraits at the National Gallery

Went to see the new big exhibition at the National Gallery - 'Goya: The Portraits' - and that's exactly what it is, room after room of portraits. I always wonder about the National Gallery putting on portrait exhibitions when the National Portrait Gallery is just round the corner, but hey ho.

I don't really know anything about Goya other than he was Spanish. I've probably seen some of his paintings in galleries but he falls into that period I tend to skip over, i.e. after the Renaissance and before the Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionists. I don't really know why but paintings in those centuries rarely do anything for me so I miss out on many of the greats, including Goya. So going to this exhibition was an attempt to start filling in some gaps.

Goya started painting portraits when he was 37 and already successful, so his sitters were the aristocrats he was taking other commissions from, people at court and the rich and powerful. The first couple of rooms of the exhibition are full of these portraits, courtly and respectable, with fine clothes and comfortably wealthy.

The painting that first made me look twice was 'The Duke of Osuna' from around 1795. This isn't terribly courtly or posh, it's a painting of a real man sitting in three quarter profile, relaxed and being himself with the painter, probably chatting about the latest art commission or the state of the court. The colours of his face almost glow with health and heartiness.  He has the face of a nice man, someone chatty and generous with his time as well as his money.

This is in great contrast with the poster lady for the exhibition, 'The Duchess of Alba' painted a couple of years later. She is haughty and proud as befits the second most important woman in Spain after the Queen. She's painted standing in the grounds of her estate in Andalusia wearing traditional dress with fine laces very carefully painted. She's pointing down to an inscription in the sand that reads 'Only Goya'. I don't think I'd like tea and a chat with this great lady, I suspect I'd be talked at rather than with in her presence.

There's a portrait of the Duke of Wellington that is on most of the merch for some reason. As the court painter, Goya was commissioned to paint his portrait after he entered Madrid in 1812. He has a small mouth There's also a chalk study for the painting hanging beside it. I walked past it.

Another painting I liked has the odd title of 'Portrait of an Artist formerly thought to be Evaristo Perez de Castro', a warm portrait of a serious young man gazing out at you with calm eyes. He looks 'real' and surprisingly modern, someone you could bump into in the street today. He's probably someone you could bump into in Soho or Hoxton on a regular basis, hanging out in a wine bar with a circle of friends. He'd probably have a trendy beard these days.

Another young man you could bump into is 'Bartolome Sureda y Miserol' with his messy fringe and weary eyes, his slightly rumpled but good quality clothes that let you know he is a young man of distinction. He was an artist and engineer. All of this looks to me like he was out on the lash the night before and while he  dutifully turned up for the sitting with the great artist, he'd much rather be home in bed. I can almost hear him asking for a glass of water to freshen up his mouth just as the red inside of his hat brightens up the portrait. Please can I have a glass of water…?

Goya was a liberal and was forced to flee Spain to live in France in 1824 at the age of 78. He went to Bordeaux to live with other exiled liberals. On a visit to Paris he met another exile, Joaquin Maria Ferrer and his wife, and painted portraits of both. The portrait of 'Manuela de Alvarez Coinas y Thomas de Ferrer' is my final choice to highlight. I like this lady. She'd make sure you never left her parlour without having had tea and cakes or a nice meal with a glass of wine. She'd take care of you and keep the gossip flowing with witty anecdotes. I bet she was a cheery soul that everyone would be happy to have as a friend.

Yes, I do invent stories about paintings and people and, as far as I'm concerned, they're true.

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