Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) could paint like a dream. You can see it in the spidery shadow of a veil on the neck of actress Antonia Zárate (painted in 1805), in the scarlet silk lining of a hat proffered by Goya’s friend the painter Bartolomé Sureda y Miserol (1804) or in the parted lips of architect Juan de Villanueva (1800) who, miraculously, looks like he’s just been disturbed at his desk some 200 years after his portrait was painted.
But Goya wasn’t the same kind of painter all of the time, or even within one painting. Neither was he on top form consistently. There are pictures in this astonishing exhibition where Goya’s seated subjects appear to levitate (yes, that’s you, ‘The Countess of Fernán Núñez’) and images in which proportions are decidedly askew: were he to stand up, Spain’s minister of finance, Francisco de Saavedra, would quite possibly possess the torso of a six-foot man and the legs of a chihuahua.
Sometimes you get the distinct impression Goya was more interested in, say, the buckle of a shoe than the face of some minor royal. He probably was. The awkwardness and inconsistencies in Goya, and what they reveal about the artist, are what make him a genius and this show the only painting exhibition you need to see this autumn. These days Goya is best known for his ‘Disasters of War’ series, his private albums of drawings and the psychologically bleak ‘Black Paintings’, which he made for his home on the outskirts of Madrid between 1819 and 1823. Private Goya has more of a profile than anything he made for public consumption. Yet, despite a slow start (he failed twice to get into the Royal Academy in Madrid), he was nothing if not a society man. This show, the first to concentrate on his portraits, is filled with high-profile characters from the royal court and the clergy – chancers, charlatans, monsters and thugs among them – as well as Goya’s circle of enlightenment friends: actors, architects, writers, fellow painters. It has the dramatic arc of a great play, of shared hopes, setbacks, successes then darkening skies with the restoration of a reactionary monarchy, all underscored by Goya’s personal ambition and tragedies (notably, the illness that, in 1793, left him deaf).
Even though he is the most revealing of painters – affection, love or disdain drips from his brush – it takes a bit of work to fathom out who Goya was painting and what he was really getting at. To this end, the free booklet is invaluable. It becomes more and more useful as Goya starts to do less. As he becomes more assured, he does away with background objects of rank and responsibility to paint figures in depthless shadow spaces, where scale and placement have their own kind of message: Wellington looks utterly diminished in Goya’s gloomy little painting.
The show’s curatorial master stroke is to hang great self-portraits at key points in the show, so you see Goya as an ambitious young(ish) man at the start of his career as a court portraitist, then as a posturing dandy in the tiny and exquisite ‘Self Portrait at an Easel’ (1796), squeezed into his costume, his face radiant against the light (even when it ought to be in deep shadow). There’s vanity, sure: Goya was pushing 50 when he painted it. But there’s also ‘Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta’ (1820) in which he painted himself weakly gripping the bedsheet, his grasp on life apparently slipping away while his doctor administers medicine.
Goya fixed himself with the same unflinching eye he used to scrutinise others. Both tragic and magic.