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Goya: Portrait of Francisco Saavedra y Sangronis

Masterpiece or potboiler?

The picture in question is a life size portrait of Francisco de Saavedra y Sangronis. He was a politician and a government minister and there is a documented record of this portrait being commissioned from Goya. Goya, at his best, is, of course, one of the truly great portrait painters who seems able to get inside the personality and mind of his sitters. But would you call this portrait a thrilling example of Goya’s mastery of colour and paint or a penetrating insight into one of the leading politicians of the day? For me the answer has to be "no".

There are reasons. The painting is in poor condition so that what we see, today, is not what Goya painted. There are major losses of paint, for example to the tassels of the tablecloth - it seems that when Goya painted it, it was tasselled at all the edges, but only those of the corners now show. There is nothing that can be done about this. What is gone is gone and sometimes when looking at an old painting we need an act of imagination and faith to replace or reconstruct in our mind’s eye what wear and tear has taken away.

Any human being, even the greatest creative genius, has good days and bad days. We all have moments when we are fired up and excited. There are times when we go through the motions only. I cannot believe that Goya was fired up when he painted this portrait.

Goya’s life and art were inextricably bound up with the Spanish Royal family and the politics of his era. He was Court Painter, which means he had a very intimate relationship with the Monarchy and its Ministers, and he produced thrilling and revealing portraits of them individually and in groups. However, one of Goya’s essential characteristics is that he is never judgemental. He showed people and events as he saw them, as they were, and leaves the judging to us. This is a surprisingly rare quality in an artist, and his objectivity is one of the factors that contributes to his greatness.

The times in which he lived were turbulent, and the temptation to rush the judgement must have been overwhelming. The Royal family, who were French, and who had only recently inherited the throne, were weak and stupid, the victims of events which they could not control, and frequently at each other’s throats. Political loyalties were divided between the liberal modernisers who looked to the French Enlightenment for their examples, and the traditionalists who wished to hang on to their old established power base. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and the horrors of the Peninsular War shattered many of the dreams about the French Enlightenment and plunged Spain into deeper political and economic chaos. Goya’s natural loyalty was with the modernisers and the power of Reason. He disliked and mistrusted superstition, empty ritual, ignorance, and Authority, and many of his works probe this particular theme. One of his most famous works is entitled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

Saavedra was also on the side of Reason, and Goya’s portrait indicates this. He is aged 52 (he was born in Seville in 1746 and this picture was painted in 1798). His early career was in the army and the law ,and then he had had various diplomatic jobs. In 1797 he became Secretary of the Treasury, and in 1798 Secretary of State. He was particularly interested in the economy and relationships with France. When France invaded Spain in 1808 he was made President of the Seville local government as well as being a member of the central government and the regency court.

He sits at a table beside papers and an ink well, implying hard work, duty and obligation, thought and study. He is elegantly dressed in the up to date French style suggesting both his modernity and allegiance to the Enlightenment. There are no distracting props and symbols. The focus is very much on the pose and face of the individual. This is typical of Goya: in his eyes we are what we are, not what we surround ourselves with and accumulate. Unusually for Goya the sitter stares into the middle distance and does not make eye contact. He wears a medal - I have not discovered what it is and I am not sure that it is even very important. Saavedra had this portrait done by Goya when he was at the height of his political career. He had just been made Minister of Grace and Justice. Shortly after this his career started to decline and he was prosecuted by the Inquisition and even went to jail. The painting is inscribed simply "Savedra por Goya".

The painting is, in fact, a somewhat pale reflection of one of Goya’s greatest masterpieces, which was done at the same time. Saavedra was a friend of Gaspar de Jovellanos, one of the most important figures of the 18th century Spanish Enlightenment. Jovellanos and Goya were close and the artist’s portrait of his friend (now in the Prado, Madrid) has everything one could wish for. It was whilst he was working on this that he was asked to do something similar for Saavedra, but even in perfect condition it would have none of the rich colour, alertness, body language, eye contact and subtle symbolism in the portrait of Jovellanos. Indeed Goya delayed in getting on with Saavedra’s commission. The end result is a routine piece of work of one of those diligent and worthy politicians who come and go with regularity, and who disappear into the footnotes of history, occasionally to be rescued when they obtain a kind of immortality through the lucky circumstance of being painted by an artist whose reputation becomes truly timeless.

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