There is one exhibition anyone coming to London cannot fail to visit.
What does a portrait tell about a person it represents? At the impressive Pompeo Batoni exhibition, which Lucca’s ducal palace held a few years ago, full length figures of young English noblemen were set against a background of Roman ruins and often with an adoring dog at their heel. Accoutered in the finest contemporary fashions these noblemen were truly flattered by the Lucchese Batoni and were inflated not only by the symbols of their rank but also by hints of new-fangled learning and taste as a result of their grand tour. These were portraits to impress and to empower all those who beheld them, especially on their return to their English estates.
Goya came late to portraiture. He was already thirty five when he produced his first painting in this form. Largely self-taught, the artist had visited Italy and filled fascinating sketch books with the old masters that astonished him most.
On his return Goya struck up a professional relationship with the learned and the nobility of Spain but what he produced as portraiture was quite different from the expected stiff flattery still in vogue.
Francisco’s images of his patrons show them as they truly are: warts and all, with bursting blood vessels, sunken cheeks because of missing teeth, distorted faces through strokes, melancholic looks and the sure signs of advancing age and personal uncertainty.
This is not to discount some delighful youthful family groups such as this one of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their children
Yet how could a painter with such an intimate beneath-the-skin outlook continue to be asked to return and paint more ultra-revealing faces? It’s because, although Goya’s brush was downright honest, it was highly skillful and never disrespectful. Beneath their physical blemishes the sitters’ dignity shine through.
Take this portrait of Don Andres del Peral with his clearly visible stroke-distorted face.
Or the Spanish king, not dressed in his royal apparel but in his peasant-like hunting clothes in which, doubtless, he felt more at ease. It reminds me of a Nicholas Bentley drawing of an English aristocrat.
Every portrait doesn’t just strike a moment in the sitter’s life – it relates to a person’s biography and most of his entire psyche, pointing to the romantic age visually in the same way that Goya’s close contemporary, Beethoven (who, coincidentally, was also afflicted by the advent of a terrible deafness at around the same time of life) does so musically.
Referring to music, of which there are various allusions in the portraits, I was particularly struck by friends of the family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón’ in which Lucca’s own Luigi Boccherini appears (third from the right). It will be remembered that Boccherini spent much of his time composing chamber music for the Spanish court.
I could go on and on about this wonderful exhibition, the first on Goya I had seen since as an unwilling schoolboy I had been dragged to the mythical Royal Academy one in the winter of 1963-4.
I left the National gallery very sobered and very touched by what I’d seen. Like all great painters (especially, Rembrandt, who nears him closest perhaps in psychological perspicacity) Goya teaches us to see us as we really are. He tells us more about our human condition than a thousand therapeutical volumes ever could.
There could be no greater self-confession that this portrait of the artist himself held in the arms of his physician who cured him of a dangerous illness. Here again, I thought of Beethoven and the third movement entitled Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the godhead) from his fifteenth string quartet.
You’ve only got till January 10th to experience this quite revelatory exhibition…