Francisco Goya, self-portrait. Canvas. 1815. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) [Goya y Lucientes, Selbstportrait. Gemaelde. 1815]

Francisco Goya: the embodiment of old Spain

Janis Tomlinson’s new biography of Francisco Goya is a well-informed, comprehensive biography that would make an excellent gift for any art lover


The life and art of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) are woven into the history of Europe in Janis A. Tomlinson’s stimulating new biography. His was a life which overlapped the tail end of the Inquisition, the rise of the Enlightenment, revolution, war and the end of the Spain as a major colonial power.

Goya is often seen as the embodiment of the old Spain: dark, poor, superstitious and living under an absolute monarch. The artist was born in Fuendetodos, near Zaragoza. He began his apprenticeship assisting in gilding frames and altarpieces with Francisco Bayeu (1734-1795). Failing to gain entry to the Royal Academy, Goya undertook a study tour of Italy, from 1769 to 1771, gaining familiarity with advanced Italian art. In these pre-royal patronage years, Goya received income from collector Martin Zapater. Much of our knowledge of the painter’s character and career come from letters written by Goya to Zapater.

Janis A. Tomlinson, Goya: A Portrait of the Artist, (Princeton University Press, 2020, £30.00)

Upon his return to Zaragoza, Goya won a commission for a church fresco in part because his fee was lower than those of established painters. He married Bayeu’s sister in 1773, having demonstrated he was capable of earning money to support a family. Two years later, Goya moved to Madrid, his eye on a lucrative position as court painter. Early commissions during Goya’s Madrid period included tapestry cartoons of hunting scenes. Goya’s income was slashed by diversion of treasury funds for decoration once war commenced. The cost of losing a naval war with the British impoverished the Spanish crown. Added to the uncertainty and reduced income, Goya suffered the loss of his children, probably all to a smallpox epidemic. Only one child (a son) lived to adulthood.

Portrait commissions brought the artist into the circle of King Carlos III and the future Carlos IV. In 1785, Goya was elected to the role of deputy director of the Royal Academy. His views on teaching were anti-academic. In 1789 Carlos IV appointed Goya as court painter. Goya was struck deaf in 1793, due to malaise with symptoms including lack of balance, delirium, impaired vision and hearing. Tomlinson suggests that it may have been due to exposure to lead paint and lead-glazed crockery.

The absence of intimate records from the artist’s hand means the character of Goya can become elusive

Appointed director of painting at the academy in 1795, Goya served in various capacities until 1804 despite struggling to fulfil his obligations. By 1796, Goya was drawing caprices of fantastic scenes – half fables, half satires – that would become Los Caprichos (The Caprices). This suite of 80 etchings has proved one of the artist’s most compelling and intriguing achievements. At times, the absence of intimate records from the artist’s hand means the character of Goya can become elusive, causing the author to keep to the facts she can establish and resisting the temptation to psychologise.

Spain was plunged into a period of uncertainty, hunger, disturbance and death during the Peninsular Wars. War against the British, imposition of Napoleon’s brother as king and bitter war with the French brutalised the Spanish. Goya painted two iconic History paintings of Spain’s recent history in 1814. In the first, The Second of May 1808, he showed an uprising when Madrileños defended themselves against the mounted French Imperial Guard. The more famous counterpart is The Third of May 1808 (1814), showing the execution of Madrileños arrested for rioting the previous day. So powerful has that image become – not just as a symbol of Spanish suffering during the Peninsular Wars – that it has distorted our perceptions of that period. “In Segovia, civilian mortality [due to famine and epidemic] in 1804-1805 reached a level far exceeding that suffered during the Napoleonic invasion four years later, a fact rarely acknowledged, perhaps because Goya was not there to record it.”

A museum worker wearing a face mask and shield stands next to the painting “The Third of May 1808” by Francisco Goya at the Prado Museum on 4 June, 2020 in Madrid (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

Evidence suggests that Goya, along with the rest of the Spanish elite, either sided with or collaborated with the French. They had relatively little sympathy with ordinary Spaniards’ resistance towards an unavoidable military alliance with the French. This renders Goya’s retrospective heroization of the executed Spaniards all the more intriguing. Had he changed his mind, revealed his true feelings, blown with the wind or been carried away by the challenge of memorialising a dramatic event? “If Goya colluded, he did so because of his profession, not his ideals.”

Tomlinson contends that by 1820, freed of court duties, Goya was at his freest

The barbarism which Goya claimed to have personally witnessed led to his Disasters of War etchings, which went unpublished until after his death. However, although he might have witnessed retreats and evacuations, he was never present at battlefields. The claim “I saw this”, inscribed on some prints, is not true; the war reportage was imagination, some scenes at least based on witness testimony (or rumour). The scenes of starvation may well be derived from first-hand experience of life in Madrid 1811-2. Goya’s wife died during this period of disease and starvation.

Restoration of the Spanish monarchy saw Goya demoted and out of favour with Fernando VII. When tribunals were held to expose collaborators, notable figures testified on the painter’s behalf. Not coincidentally, Goya was busy working on his patriotic paintings whilst manoeuvring to get his court stipend restored. The heroism of the protagonists in Goya’s patriotic paintings is in inverse proportion to that of the artist, it seems.

By 1816 Goya was semi-detached from the court. Tomlinson counters the view the artist was isolated when he depicted the shadows of evil, madness and grief at this time. She contends that by 1820, freed of court duties and the churn of commissioned portraits (and recently recovered from serious illness), Goya was at his freest. His Black Paintings depict sorcery, pilgrimage and violence, combining witches and lunatics, the elderly and dying, thugs and paupers. Painted on the walls of Casa de la Quinta del Sordo (Goya’s farmhouse outside Madrid) the murals were painted for his own amusement.

From the series The Art of Bullfighting (La Tauromaquia ). (Photo by Barney Burstein/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Goya started a liaison with Leocadia Zorrilla Weiss, with whom he would live. There was even talk that her daughter was fathered by Goya, though all we know officially is that she was his goddaughter. The restoration of Fernando VII and resumption of the Inquisition made Goya’s fantastic art theologically (and politically) unsound. Abolition of the short-lived liberal constitution and arrest of prominent liberals led to an exodus of dissidents. In 1824 Goya (in the company of Leocadia and her children) left Spain for France for a spa cure. He would spend his last four years in Bordeaux, on a royal retainer that was – given Goya’s advanced age – effectively a pension. He died on 16 April 1828.

This well-informed, comprehensive biography would make an excellent gift for an art lover. Tomlinson has fashioned a clear and informative biography that will appeal to Goya researchers and enthusiasts; the illustrations are good and not all obvious choices. We do have some evidence of Goya’s personality. Letters and incidents show Goya as imperious, thin-skinned, defensive, competitive, grateful, proud, anxious. We see the artist as a devoted hunter and avid attendee of bullfights (note his suite of etchings). If we do not get the whole man, we get as much as there is to get – or as much as he allowed us to glimpse.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover