An honest face: Goya’s groundbreaking portraits

Published 7 October 2015

As the first show of Goya’s portraiture opens today, Caroline Bugler considers three ways the Spanish master broke the genre’s boundaries.

  • From the Autumn 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Psychological insight

    Francisco de Goya captured the likenesses of a wide range of sitters, from friends who shared his enlightened views to authoritarian figures such as the tyrannical Spanish King Ferdinand VII. While he painted many people in positions of power, he was generally more interested in the person than the role they occupied. After the artist became deaf in 1793 he could no longer hear what his subjects said, but he still managed to convey a sense of both their inner lives and the personality they wished to project to the world. In his portrait of Andre?s del Peral (before 1798; pictured), the slightly imperious side-long gaze conveys the intelligence and pride of a well-paid gilder, art collector and colleague.

  • Francisco de Goya, Don Andrés del Peral

    Francisco de Goya, Don Andrés del Peral, before 1798.

    Oil on poplar. 95 x 65.7cm. Presented by Sir George Donaldson, 1904 © National Gallery, London.

  • Naturalism

    The artist was not afraid to reveal what he saw before him. Although he did occasionally alter some of his sitters’ features so that they appeared more pleasing, many of his likenesses seem extraordinarily unflattering to modern eyes. One French visitor who saw the group portrait The Family of Charles IV (1800) in Madrid’s Prado Museum in the 1830s remarked that the Spanish royals looked like a family of grocers who had won the lottery. Goya’s approach was honest but not cruel, and he showed particular empathy in his portrayal of friends, children and the elderly. His portrait of Peral faithfully records the way the left side of the gilder’s face droops, perhaps suggesting that he had suffered a stroke.

    Innovative technique

    Going against a prevailing tendency in official portraiture for highly finished surfaces, Goya frequently opted for a looser manner of working that allows viewers space to complete the painting with their eyes and minds. Peral’s waistcoat, composed of white and grey lines, is painted in an impressionistic manner, the blue brocaded flowers that decorate it suggested by controlled flicks of the brush. Goya was an astute observer of the way that light falls on cloth, and was adept at rendering the sparkle and shimmer of costume details such as jewels, buttons and decorations.

    Goya: The Portraits is at the National Gallery, London, from 7 October – 10 January 2016.

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