The Pilgrimage to San Isidro; painting by Francisco Goya

Museo del Prado, Madrid

Francisco Goya: The Pilgrimage to San Isidro, 1820–1823

The art of Francisco Goya has stood as a beacon over the cultural landscape during the nearly two centuries since his death, at age eighty-two, in 1828. It is a source of light that glares. We think of the terrible dazzle on the shirt of the laborer in Goya’s vast canvas The Third of May 1808—the sure target for the squad lined up to shoot him. We think how the bright bodies of Goya’s Majas, both naked and clothed, pulse out their summons to lust as if lit from within. Witches, mules, and mutants jump up, abrupt islands of whiteness, from the dusky aquatint textures of the Caprichos: and when, in some of the Desastres de la guerra, the sheet is almost shadowless, we confront the hardest, harshest sunlight that ever shone. For Goya, to portray is emphatically to illuminate. The courtiers surge into view in pastings of lead-white paint—the glow of cheeks and collars, the shimmer of sashes and muslin, the brilliance of buttons. Figures gleam, figures loom: in Goya’s handling, even their blacks are bright. His first remit is to make bodies come forth. What he delivers is a shocking immediacy.

Goya’s formidable art may have had its imitators—disputes have rumbled since 2008 over who actually painted the Prado’s allegory of a land in crisis, The Colossus—but it sets a standard by which to compare all else: in this sense, it feels primal. By the same token, we struggle adequately to describe it, and we may come away not merely dazzled but puzzled. The Caprichos, the 1799 album of etchings for which Goya first received international attention, runs human bodies through many an indignity: they lurch, tumble, and slump, they flip from flirting to hurting one another horrifically, they morph into beasts. But the satire’s targets fluctuate in tandem. Is it taking aim at humanity in general? Or more specifically at the Spain of Carlos IV? Is it the psychopathology of the rabble around him that Goya is probing, or that which lurks within the artist himself? Repeatedly, we are left unsure of whom to laugh at. The terse captions (“All will fall,” “A bad night,” “Who’d have thought it!”) compound the unease, as does the self-portrait on the frontispiece—a top-hatted man-about-Madrid regarding us with a disdainful sideways leer.

Where did this soon-to-be-appointed “first painter to the court” place his allegiances? Our hearts go out to the workers struggling to carry donkeys on their backs in the Capricho titled “You who can’t,” just as they do to that proletarian facing the firing squad. But their inventor used the common people of Spain as fodder for comedy in the many tapestry cartoons he designed for the palaces of his patrons, of whom—according to Janis Tomlinson, in her new biography Goya: A Portrait of the Artist—he painted “ever respectful” portraits “in which naturalism and flattery are held in perfect balance.” With brushes in hand, Goya delivered in 1819 the last and most gravely moving of his altarpieces, showing Saint Joseph of Calasanz about to receive his final communion; at much the same time, with his burin, the septuagenarian scratched another wide-open mouth, that of a corpse in the tomb, his finger bones clutching a book inscribed, “Nothing.” Are the Black Paintings of the following years—those unforgettable murals of a deranged Saturn devouring his offspring, of equally crazed drunkards and devotees, and of a dog sunk in quicksand—further pointers to a tragic nihilism? Or do they rather confront us with a devil-may-care survivor flaunting a matchlessly wild sense of humor, in decorations intended for his own private palace?

Writers have typically addressed these ambivalences by hailing Goya—who was in his mid-forties when the ancien régime was swept away beyond the Pyrenees—as the first artist of “modernity.” With him we see a studio practice uniquely well equipped, via his long prior training in the figurative language of European art and by his own fearless temperament, to take on the challenges to collective self-understanding that the revolutionary era initiated and to deliver icons for our subsequent disenchanted predicament. Thus we read Charles Baudelaire championing the “nightmare teeming with things unknown” of the Caprichos, and Andrei Voznesensky clutching the Desastres: “I am Goya…/I am the tongue/of war, the embers of cities/on the snows of the year 1941/I am hunger.” And thus Robert Hughes prefaced his 2003 biography by proclaiming Goya more “urgent” than any artist at work in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

In this way Goya’s imagery has floated free of its original temporal moorings, as is the way with any really strong art. A historian who wishes to steer it back to harbor might start by converting the words “premodern” and “modern” into “located” and “nonlocated.” For Goya started out as a supplier of pictures to specified destinations, obeying formats that would have been familiar to any European painter from the fourteenth century onward. As the second son of a Zaragoza gilder whose brother followed their father’s trade, he trained in a related specialism and turned out devotional paintings starting in his teens. Soon attaching himself to the best-connected artist in the Aragonese capital—Francisco Bayeu, whose younger sister Josefa he married—Goya joined him on fresco projects and at twenty-five landed one for himself in the city cathedral.


Bayeu had a foothold in Madrid as a court painter, and there Goya headed in his late twenties, finding a niche as an inventor of painted scenes (“cartoons”) to be woven as tapestries for the royal family’s various residences. While his fresco painting had leaned initially toward the rowdy clouds-and-lightbursts of the Baroque and then toward a cool incoming neoclassicism, these sunny palace pastorals built on the pictorial comedies of Watteau, enlarging them in scale and expanding the social range of the dramatis personae. Finding that Goya was excellent company in shooting parties and moreover that he had a keen eye for the costumiers’ latest fashions, the grandees of Madrid began to swell his income, starting in his late thirties, with an increasing demand for portraits.

A tale, then, of good integration: the steady rise of an adept purveyor of pictures meant for somewhere and someone. The above précis omits one bid made for future glory: at twenty-three, Goya went off on a tour of Italy, to learn from its historic masterpieces. But then his clientele had few problems with a commoner holding grand ambitions. The reign of Carlos III, which ran from Goya’s fourteenth to his forty-third year, saw Enlightenment sympathies such as respect for the practical artisan gaining a small but articulate bridgehead in the polite society of the Spanish capital, if not in the nation’s hierarchical heartlands. The change in cultural temper spread beyond those who might actually have heard of Adam Smith or Rousseau, the well-educated progressives known as ilustrados. This helps explain one facet of the Goya puzzle, namely why clients warmed to a portrait practice that—as Tomlinson concedes, pace her claim that it was “respectful”—could be “brutally” forthright.

Tomlinson tells how Goya, once admitted to the Bourbon monarchs’ palace, was thrilled to discover its Velázquez canvases painted for the previous dynasty—their images hardly having been circulated before. Here were prototypes for an up-and-comer who talked of basing his art on “nature” rather than on academic rules. And yet the 1650s naturalism of Las Meninas feels hardly like the naturalism of Goya’s 1784 recasting, The Family of the Infante don Luis de Borbón. Poise and reserve make way for a brash, blasting facture. Goya has his sights on all these types, high and low—the aging playboy “infante,” no sharper-witted than his brother the king; his self-conscious glam young wife; their children; her hairdresser; their mischievous retainers. They fall to his brush as he squats at his easel like the eighteen animals he once boasted of bringing down with nineteen successive shots. His sincerity, his warmth—his gaucheness, even—win the day. The Age of Sentiment has arrived in Spain.

The Family of the Infante don Luis de Borbón; painting by Francisco Goya

Magnani-Rocca Foundation, Parma

Francisco Goya: The Family of the Infante don Luis de Borbón, 1784

To be followed—in France—by the Age of Revolution, news of which the ministers of the next monarch, Carlos IV, did their best to suppress in their now economically precarious nation. A main challenge for any biographer is to explain how the subsequent convulsions—at length striking Spain directly with the Napoleonic invasion of 1808, followed by six years of the Peninsular War—affected an artist whose profile largely rests on the work of his later years. (Goya turned fifty in 1796.)

Tomlinson, a scholar who has been publishing on Goya for over three decades, is concerned to disentangle him from the retroactive politicizations of his admirers. Her “portrait of the artist,” as the subtitle has it, presents a property owner intent, through successive regime changes, to look out for Number One. After Napoleon’s brother Joseph entered Madrid only to be swiftly chased out of it in the summer of 1808, Goya painted an equestrian portrait of his Bourbon rival, Fernando VII, for the Royal Academy: in May the next year, with Joseph back in power, Goya cheekily complained that he hadn’t yet been paid; he was still complaining when Fernando finally resumed the throne in 1814. But Goya had also, it seems, painted an equestrian Joseph: the face on that canvas ended up replaced by that of the Duke of Wellington, the Napoleonic army’s nemesis. While many in his circle may have been ilustrados, favoring a more liberal Spain, Goya, Tomlinson argues, “served kings and their courts rather than ideologies.”


In this account, the breakup of that circle in Goya’s later fifties, as old friends died or left town, is the chief caesura in a highly paid and acclaimed career that was at its peak around 1800. But this reinterpretation of the story can only go so far. Against it stands the best-known fact about Goya’s life: that in 1792–1793, at the age of forty-six, this mainstay of the tertulia, whose special requests in hired accommodation included “a wine bag and a small guitar,” suffered an illness (possibly caused by the poisonous lead-white pigment on which he relied) that left him completely and permanently deaf. The tough professional in Goya may have bounced back, swiftly mastering sign language, but the power of invención on which he prided himself was undeniably redirected.

Simpleton; painting by Francisco Goya

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Francisco Goya: Simpleton, circa 1816

Watching others jabber soundlessly, Goya “no longer took meaning for granted,” Tomlinson notes: a detachment explicitly proclaimed when he published the Caprichos six years later. That one-man initiative to bring to Madrid a discursive and critical art culture—rather like that which Hogarth’s prints had launched in 1730s London—was surely in sympathy with ilustrado sentiments, even if Tomlinson insists that it was never in danger of censorship from the Inquisition. But with that print series, the marksman started firing his shots in the air. Who could tell where and how among the unseen public they might land, these baffling—and indeed also baffled—observations of human behavior? So began Goya’s voyage away from a located picture-making.

It was a journey outward that he would continue, between his more profitable labors, until his dying day. It passed through reimaginings of current atrocity too savage to be circulated (the Desastres would not be published till 1863), through the private dark ride of the Black Paintings inside the country mansion he occupied in the early 1820s, and on to the aleatory experiments of his final four years, little figural visions suggested by blots that formed when water droplets fell on carbon-coated ivory. By then, Goya was literally dislocated. He had fled across the Pyrenees to seek congenial company among Spanish exiles in Bordeaux, abandoning a Madrid where his efforts for the reactionary Fernando VII—the Third of May, for instance—were seemingly thought passé.

All this later work has attracted many explanations, both political and psychological. But in a sense to pin meanings on it is beside the point. For what was “modern”—to fall back to that word—was the move from arithmetic into algebra: into appointing an unknown, an x, that was at once the mystery audience and the mystery of the inventive voice within. No imagination was ever more devoted to the figure, but in those old man’s fantasias, with their lumps of hurled-about body mass, the devotion is so pure as almost to turn abstract.

Tomlinson’s detailed account of this long and productive life is discriminating and trustworthy. Her revisionary examinations of what Goya did and why he did it seem generally plausible to me, and a bonus of the book is her close focus on the changing city life of Madrid. But the doyenne of a field of study may not be its best advocate. Where Goya first went to school; how he paid for his trip to Italy; to what extent he employed assistants; how, once deaf, he picked up signing; what Javier, his one surviving child, did with his life—these common-sense questions have, I expect, been resolved by Tomlinson to her own satisfaction so long ago that it does not occur to her now to discuss them.

She also passes in silence over controversies such as the authorship of The Colossus. Firmer editing would have jogged her elbow when she yawned at her duty of chronicling: from “wartime Madrid was a city of contrasts” to The Third of May being “an iconic image of good versus evil,” her phrasing is frequently lackluster. It might have encouraged her to inject some argumentative excitement into the politics of the era and, still more, to confer some individuality on the story’s characters. What manner of man was Gaspar de Jovellanos, Goya’s most distinguished ilustrado patron? “A good person to know” is all we learn. What manner of woman did Goya live with? Ignoring whatever frustrations Josefa was expressing in her lone reported comment that “the house is the wives’ grave,” Tomlinson concludes from her husband’s single drawing of her that she “fulfilled her duties patiently…enduring with a quiet grace.”

What Josefa endured many another household would have known: the deaths in infancy of Javier’s six siblings and their father’s cocksure machismo. In one of his tumbling, impassioned letters to the businessman Martín Zapater, his old buddy from Zaragoza, Goya went so far as to declare that “I prefer you to all the pleasures and joys of the matrimonial alcove.”* That preference was not, Tomlinson reckons, one of sexual taste—and the way that Goya’s imagery dotes on curvaceous females supports her judgment. But it aligns with Goya’s scorn for academic precepts that would “vilify and effeminate” the “liberal” art of which he was becoming, by his early forties, the unchallengeable master. This was the Madrid arriviste—the would-be Francisco “de” Goya—who had to buy the latest thing, such as a new “birlocho in the English style,” but who crashed it on his first drive and then nearly killed a pedestrian before shrugging and trading it in.

“I spend a lot, because I decided to and because I like it,” he told Zapater. In the final Bordeaux years, with his hearing, his late wife, and his nation’s frontiers all behind him, Goya defiantly insisted that “only my will abounds,” while a fellow exile remarked that this restless old grouch was working “with a new vehemence, never wanting to correct anything that he paints.” In sum, the tale is of push, push, push: take a knock, dust yourself off; charge on, exultantly unself-critical. Its hero was exultantly willing, therefore, not only to pour his heart into the figures he portrayed, but to let his invención take him wherever it would, even into the eeriest nowheres.

It is a tale of indomitable energy, and seventeen years ago it was told by an author whose vivacity echoed that of the art itself. The late Robert Hughes’s Goya is a shamelessly cantankerous and sometimes sentimental performance, but one that grippingly communicates the historical tensions of Goya’s era and the thrills of engaging with his oeuvre. It seems ungenerous that this earlier publication should go wholly unacknowledged in what Princeton University Press tendentiously claims to be Goya’s “first major English-language biography.” Tomlinson has supplied a cool and corrective scholarly chronicle. But for the general reader’s purposes, Hughes still serves Goya better.