Important Art by Francisco Goya
This portrait of the Spanish royal family was made at the height of Goya's career as a court painter. Unlike many of his earlier society and court portraits, which hewed more closely to the genre's conventions of flattery, this painting signals a new direction for the artist in its unflinchingly (some might say grotesquely) realistic depictions of its sitters. The artist based the composition on Velázquez's Las Meninas, which also includes a self-portrait of the artist in the act of painting the royal family. Here, Goya depicts himself in the shadows, standing in front of a large canvas (presumably the same one we now behold) in the far left background.
At the center of the composition, brilliantly lit, is the figure of Queen Maria Luisa, who holds the hand of her son Francisco (in vivid red) and her daughter, Maria Isabel. King Charles stands to her left: widely thought to be an ineffectual leader, his off-center placement provides a clue about the power dynamic of the family as well as their foibles and failings. Indeed, the Queen was believed to hold the real power, along with Prime Minister Manuel Godoy, with whom she had an affair (her illegitimate children are at the far left of the canvas, one in blue, the other in orange). Goya's subversive critique - disguised as a glorifying portrait - of the corruption of Charles IV's reign is further enhanced by the subject of a painting hanging in the background, which shows the Biblical story of the immoral and incestuous Lot and his daughters.
From a technical standpoint, the painting dazzles with detail, especially in the luxurious garments and jewels worn by the family. Goya's brushwork is loose and spontaneous in other areas of the composition. Rembrandt's influence on the artist is apparent in this work, notably in the play of light and shadow and in the overall warm tonality of Goya's palette.
Goya was himself the subject of scandal and rumor particularly when it came to his relationships with members of Spain's social elite. For instance, he was suspected of conducting a love affair with the aristocratic Maria Cayetana de Silva, the 13th Duchess of Alba, one of the most famous women in Spain. Their liaison probably began after the death of the Duke of Alba in 1796 (Goya had painted portraits of both husband and wife in 1795). Goya was no doubt taken with the Duchess's haughty beauty, with her curvaceous figure, alabaster complexion, and voluminous black curls.
Painted the year after the Duke's death, this portrait of the Duchess depicts her in mourning black, wearing the traditional costume of a maja, one of the very stylish members of Spain's lower classes known for their bold behavior. In posing as a maja, the Duchess was making an attempt to connect with the masses, despite her elevated social standing. Standing with one hand on her hip, she points toward the ground with her other hand, where Goya has lightly drawn his name in the dun-colored sand. When the painting was restored, the word "solo" was uncovered next to Goya's name, implying that the artist was her only love (though she wears two rings on her hand, one inscribed "Alba", the other "Goya").
Though the painting was commissioned by the Duchess, Goya kept it in his possession for 15 years, indicating his strong attachment to the work and its subject, or, possibly, the Duchess' inability to accept a work that so openly flaunted an affair. Much of the imagery that would populate Goya's prints and drawings following the end of their affair - women as fickle temptresses, men as cuckolded fools, lovers tortured by uncontrollable passions - has lead art historians to suspect that his heart had been broken by the Duchess.
Goya is as famous for his prints as he is for his paintings, and is known as one of the great masters of the etching and aquatint techniques. The first of his four major print series was Los Caprichos, which consists of 80 numbered and titled plates. The artist's stated purpose in making the series was to illustrate "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual." Goya began working on the plates around 1796, after an undiagnosed illness left him deaf and drove him to retreat into a self-imposed isolation.
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, plate 43 in the series, depicts a sleeping man (thought to be Goya himself), surrounded by a swarm of strange flying creatures. These are the "monsters" of the title, which invade the mind when reason is surrendered to imagination and dreams. Many of the animals Goya depicts hold symbolic meaning: the owls and bats represent ignorance and evil, while the watchful lynx at the artist's feet - a creature known for its ability to see in darkness - alerts us to the importance of distinguishing fact from fiction. The bat with the goat head may be a satanic reference, and allusions to witchcraft can be found throughout the series. However, as with many of Goya's prints, the intended meaning of the various symbols can be hard to deduce with certainty.
The Caprichos introduces the dark subject matter and mood that would continue to define Goya's work until the end of his life. These works, based on extensive drawings in pen and ink, were expressions of the artist's personal beliefs and ideas, created outside his official work for the court and influential patrons. These prints were profoundly influential to later Surrealists like Dalí in their mingling of realism and dream symbolism.