Portrait of the artist as a serious worker

October 12, 1994|By Judith Wynn | Judith Wynn,Special to The Sun

Because so little is actually known about the Spanish painter Goya, his legend easily takes on the lurid hues of romance: Goya the eccentric loner, toiling through the night with candles attached to his hat to cast an eerie light over his bizarre canvas dreamscapes. Goya the mad but cagey genius thumbing his nose at the Spanish nobility, whose portraits he painted during his court-artist years.

In "Francisco Goya y Lucientes, 1746-1828," Columbia University art professor Janis Tomlinson focuses on Goya the professional, who steadily plugged away at his craft -- from his first commissioned church fresco to the reverent Seville altarpiece of St. Justa and St. Rufina that he painted near the end of his long, fruitful career. ("You know Goya and will realize the efforts I have had to make to instill ideas into him which are so obviously against his grain," wrote the agent who coached the free-thinking painter through that last, lucrative church assignment.)

"I am still learning," Goya titled one of his final black-and-white sketches (of a frail old man creeping gamely along on two crutches). Ms. Tomlinson rightly calls this attitude the key to the remarkable vitality that carried Goya through illness, war and self-imposed political exile. His willingness to experiment and learn put the artist solidly in -- as well as ahead of -- his times. Consider his stark, emotion-charged etching series, "The Disasters of War." This bleak and at times sickening chronicle of the 1808-1814 Spanish civil war anticipated 20th century photojournalism as well as 20th century terrorism.

Goya's most famous royal portrait is his unusual, almost life-size group study "The Family of Charles IV" (1800-1801). Some commentators see it as satire -- a caricature of 14 self-conscious mediocrities posed in a row as though they were at a police lineup. Queen Maria Louisa's unvarnished homeliness and sour expression are usually cited as evidence that Goya must have been pulling his patron's aristocratic leg. Ms. Tomlinson offers a fresh and intriguing interpretation by noting the subtle but nevertheless tender signs of affection among the shaken royal family members, who were undergoing stressful political times. Ms. Tomlinson concludes that Goya basically respected his noble subjects and did his best to portray the toothless, childbirth-ravaged queen. If Goya really scorned royalty, Ms. Tomlinson reasons, why did they continue to hire him?

Much of what we know about Goya comes from letters that were heavily censored by the writer's relatives in order to create an image of a loyally Catholic and Spanish Goya. Were his fantastic renderings of lunatics, criminals, witches and ghouls really escape-valve works painted just for himself and a few close friends? Ms. Tomlinson's handsome, generously illustrated book gives plenty of examples but leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

For speculation on Goya's relationship with the Duchess of Alba -- whose nude portrayal in "The Naked Maja" drew fire from the Spanish Inquisition -- Anthony Hull's "Goya" offers lively, educated guesswork. For a discussion of Goya's influence on modern art, Fred Licht's passionate "Goya" still reigns supreme and should be perused alongside Tomlinson's low-key but insightful account.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.


Title: "Francisco Goya y Lucientes, 1746-1828"

Author: Janis Tomlinson

Publisher: Phiadon

Length, price: 320 pages, $60

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