Meet Goya’s Women: They Hang in D.C., In From Madrid

It’s been said of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), whose work is currently the subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., that he was at once the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns. This may only be another way of saying that Goya owed much to Velásquez–and indeed to Titian and the Venetian pictorial tradition–and that certain 19th-century pioneers of modern painting, Delacroix and Manet among them, owed much to Goya.

However we may wish to characterize Goya’s place in the canon of Western painting, he is clearly a towering figure, and in my adult lifetime there has never been a more compelling account of his achievement than the exhibition which Janis Tomlinson has now organized at the National Gallery in Goya: Images of Women .

Don’t be put off by the title. This is definitely not one of those politically correct, gender-bending projects so prevalent nowadays in the academic study of art history. Its focus on Goya’s images of women was, in any case, proposed by the Prado Museum in Madrid, with which the National Gallery has collaborated on this exhibition and which has lent many important works from its own collections, some never before seen on this side of the Atlantic.

A somewhat different version of the exhibition was seen last fall in Madrid. Washington is the show’s only other venue. For the Washington version, which numbers 113 items, Ms. Tomlinson, the guest curator, has divided the exhibition into seven sections. It opens with a selection of Goya’s early tapestries and the so-called cartoons for tapestries, which are actually full-scale oil paintings commissioned as designs for the silk and wool tapestries for the private rooms of the royal palaces, El Pardo and El Escorial. These date from 1775 to 1800, and generally concentrate on subjects drawn from folklore and popular literature. The irony for us later viewers of this early commissioned work is that the painted cartoons are far more dazzling in their painterly virtuosity than the tapestries based on them, which inevitably reduce the vivacity of Goya’s artistry to a predictable and rather dull decorative convention.

It is in the second section of the show, from the years 1783 to 1790, that we begin to see Goya at something close to his full glory as a painter of group portraits of the Spanish aristocracy. Here the undoubted masterwork is The Family of the Infanta Don Luis (1783-84), one of the paintings never before seen in this country. Everything about this large picture compels our attention and admiration, from the depiction of the doddering old husband and his much younger wife, attended by her male hairdresser, at the center, to the figure of the artist working at his easel in the lower left corner, and the many other penetrating characterizations that transform the convention of the group portrait into a brilliant comedy of manners.

We then move on to a section which Ms. Tomlinson delicately entitles “Gentlemen’s Paintings”–paintings of women created for male patrons from the 1780’s to around 1805. This is where we encounter Goya’s most famous pictures of women–both The Naked Maja (1797-1800) and The Clothed Maja (1800-1805), with the latter curiously more provocative than the former. Also of great interest is a less familiar painting called Sleep (circa 1798-1808), which has a poetic delicacy that is very different from the more confrontational Maja classics.

Then comes our first encounter with the etchings called The Caprichos and related drawings from 1795 to 1799. Here the range of expression widens to encompass the kind of explicit satire and social criticism that is only hinted at in the commissioned portraits. There then follows a section devoted to the later portraits, from 1795 to 1816, when Goya was much in demand for such commissions; another section devoted to the later uncommissioned prints and drawings; and a final section of paintings and miniatures devoted to genre subjects, which are often treated with a ferocity of invention and invective far removed from the gentler treatment of genre themes in the early tapestry cartoons.

It was certainly a wise decision on Ms. Tomlinson’s part to organize this exhibition chronologically. (The Madrid version of the show opted for a more thematic structure that scrambled historical chronology.) As a result of this chronological structure, we can clearly follow what Ms. Tomlinson describes as “Goya’s journey from an artist of polite society to one who took his inspiration from all facets of the world around him, producing a body of work, some of which is still unmatched today for its unvarnished, even brutal, realism.”

Realism is indeed the keynote that is sounded in every aspect of Goya’s art, and Goya’s realism commands such a range of feeling and observation that it compels us to re-examine the very idea of realism in painting. If, in some of the portraits, it is a realism tempered by respect for the position of his patrons, in others it is a realism so candid in its depiction of human decay and pretension that you have to wonder why his patrons put up with it. But it is, of course, in the uncommissioned paintings, drawings and prints that Goya develops a realism of the macabre and the horrific that still has the power to stun even the most jaded of modern sensibilities.

In the end, it was a realism deeply rooted in the muck and sentiment of worldly experience. Imposture of any sort was alien to its spirit, and its comprehension of the darker sides of human nature was profound. Which is why Goya still has the power to shock us as well as inspire our admiration.

Goya: Images of Women , which remains on view at the National Gallery in Washington through June 2, is an exhibition that everyone with a serious interest in painting–or, for that matter, in life itself–will want to see.