I’d heard of the Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, more commonly known as Goya, because of his powerful war paintings, but this new exhibition at the National Gallery shows another side to him. Goya: The Portraits encompasses the artist’s career in portraiture, from his earliest work to his final years. The exhibition contains 70 works, made up of paintings, drawings and miniatures.
I enjoyed the exhibition: I thought some works were better than others, but they all had Goya’s unique style and power. I was particularly interested in the self-portraits, most notably the “Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta” (1820) in which Goya pays tribute to the medical man who saved his life when he was stricken with a serious illness. The picture shows an ill-looking Goya prostrate in bed, attended by the doctor, while shadowy figures – possibly harbingers of death, or waiting to give the last rites – lurk in the shadows. I also thought that the artist’s family pictures, including the sensitive portrait of his wife, Josefa Bayeu de Goya and his final portrait, an image of his beloved grandson Mariano Goya y Goicoechea, were rather touching.
I thought it very impressive how Goya managed to stay in favour for so much of his life, given the tumults within Spanish society. From an established portrait painter to the Spanish aristocracy, he became the official portrait painter to the Spanish court, and yet when the 1808 popular uprising led to conflict between the existing royal family and the French emperor Napoleon, he managed to keep his position, painting all sorts of powerful figures. I hadn’t previously known that a serious illness in his mid-40s left him almost totally deaf: his portraits became a way for him to communicate with his sitters.
I sometimes find looking at portraits to be a bit boring – there’s only so many times you can gaze with interest at powerful figures posing in beautiful outfits – but Goya’s grasp of psychology and his unusual style made these pictures genuinely fascinating for me. The exhibition runs in the Sainsbury Wing until 10 January.