In what has been hailed ‘the show of the decade,’ the National Gallery recently exhibited a remarkable 70 portraits painted by the Spanish artist, Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828). Though already considered by scholars to be a genius – the last of the Old Masters and the first of the modern painters – this exhibit has been credited with having the power to change your sense of the artist forever.
I found this statement to be precisely on point as I wandered around the National Gallery’s rather cramped Sainsbury Wing. Having previously found some of Goya’s most well known paintings, ‘Cinco de Mayo’ and ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, eerily haunting albeit brilliant and politically stirring, I have always seemed to miss exactly what it is that has fascinated art historians about Goya for centuries. However, I certainly found it here. The exhibition Goya: The Portraits showcases not only Goya’s expert ability to capture his sitters’ psychology and personality, but also his technical brilliance – impressionistic brush strokes and expert manipulation of color and lighting utilized to portray texture, particularly in clothing.
Painted by Goya in 1797, ‘The Duchess of Alba’ provides an extraordinary example of the artist’s ability to capture costume. Dressed as a maja in a black dress appliquéd with dark flowers, yellow bodice accented with gold cuffs and jewels, and veil known as a mantilla, which is still used in present day Spain, the Duchess of Alba fiercely looks out on the spectator while pointing to an inscription on the ground, Solo Goya (Only Goya). The mantilla drapes heavily around the Duchess’ shoulders, and Goya’s expert use of texture– conveying lightness without compromising detail– allows it to frame her equally black, curly hair.
The costume in ‘The Duchess of Alba’ underscores the sitter’s strong will, intelligence and independent nature. By electing to be painted in traditional maja costume – the exaggerated dress of the Spanish lower classes – the Duchess actively chose to defy French enlightenment ideals and fashion, and emphasize her Spanish pride. It provides a captivating contrast to the typical eighteenth century portrait (below), in which costume, in addition to conveying status, tends to act as an adornment which shapes a traditionally beautiful, dainty woman devoid of thought and emotion into an idealized form.
The red scarf woven with gold thread is carefully tied around her corseted waist to showcase the jewels sewn into the tip of the bodice, which convey her power and position. The point of the bodice directs the viewer’s gaze to her jewel-laden hand pointing towards the engraving on the earth. However, a close inspection reveals two engraved rings which raise pertinent questions regarding the relationship between the artist and sitter– a diamond ring inscribed with Alba and a gold band with Goya.
The Duchess of Alba was the highest-ranking woman in Spain after the queen, and her contemporary decedents undeniably remain powerful figures belonging to the Spanish nobility (distantly connected to the Spencer / Churchill clan). So is Goya, a high-ranking artist though commoner nonetheless, insinuating that the two transgressed social boundaries? Or was this some kind of eighteenth century endorsement such as, the Duchess of Alba approved of Goya enough to blatantly allow him to connect her image with his name and brand as an artist?
It goes almost without saying that the history of ‘The Duchess of Alba’ and the costume depicted in this portrait are utterly fascinating. Further, there remains a vast amount of speculation regarding the engravings and relationship between Goya and the Duchess. Indeed, many art historians believe her silhouette was the inspiration for the scandalous paintings ‘Maja’ and ‘Maja Desnuda’, but I will let you find out why the paintings were so controversial that Goya was questioned by the inquisition for painting them… If you have a chance, certainly don’t miss the last few days of this very worthwhile exhibition.
Goya: The Portraits is on at the National Gallery from 7 October 2015 until 10 January 2016. The Courtauld Book Library holds a copy of the exhibition catalog.
Noyes, Dorothy: “La Maja Vestida: Dress as Resistance to Enlightenment in Late 18th-century Madrid,” Journal of American Folklore, vol 111, no 440, 1998, 197-217.