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Goya: Portrait of Francisco Saavedra y Sangronis

Guilt and discovery

I now feel guilty that I have not been more enthusiastic about this painting or about its sitter, parlty because there are so few Goyas that can be seen in London, and to find one at all is a rare treat. The only ones that give any full sense of what Goya can achieve as a portrait painter are in the National Gallery - but they are all small head and shoulders. There is a portrait of Dona Isabel de Porcel which is a thrilling harmony of flesh colour and black, showing what miracles Goya can achieve with liquid oil paint and a simple palette. The finest, in my view, is a little portrait of the Duke of Wellington who, richly decorated with ribbons and medals, stares out of this exquisite work with haunting, even haunted, eyes that make direct contact with mine. I can remember discovering a similar penetrating gaze, with a shiver of excitement (in the Metropolitan Museum in New York). That penetrating look seems to me to be unique to Goya. Portraits set up a curious three way relationship between the sitter, the artist and the viewer of the picture. In nearly every case the viewer (i.e. me), seems to end up as judge and jury passing comments, criticism and assessment on the artist (has he/she done a good job, painted well, produced a good picture?) and the sitter (he/she looks thin/fat/ugly/grumpy/interesting/stupid/greedy/kind etc?). With Goya I have the unnerving sense that when his sitters look out of their frame and make eye contact this comforting judgemental role is reversed. It is I who now stand in the witness box, cross examined by these miraculously painted faces, and it is they who are questioning me and urging me to answer those awkward testing enquiries that go to the heart of what it means to be a human being.

If you want to see Goya’s paintings at their fullest you have to go to Spain, and to Madrid in particular. He was a busy artist but there are surprisingly few paintings by him in collections outside Spain. There are two reasons for this. The first is the extent to which Goya’s art and own life was tied up with events in Spain. The second is the degree to which Spanish art and culture was ignored elsewhere in Europe until the end of the 19th century. Spain was not on the Grand Tour itinerary of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and Voltaire for example was extraordinarily dismissive of Spain saying it "was like the most savage parts of Africa and not worth being known". Widespread recognition came with the new progressive artists such as Manet and Whistler for whom Spanish art, notably Velasquez and Goya, were thrilling discoveries. They responded to the way they handled the paint and colour with such freedom and intelligence, and for their ability to explore the human psyche and human relationships in a manner which they regarded as both free from prejudice, and modern.

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