Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes* was born in the small hilltop village of Fuendetodos, near Zaragoza (often Anglicised to Saragossa) in the north-east of Spain, on 30 March 1746. His father was a gilder, a craftsman who was responsible for overseeing work undertaken in the local church, and most prominently in the rebuilding of the principal cathedral in Zaragoza, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar (Santa Maria del Pilar). This massive cathedral is built on the site of the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to the Apostle James, in which she is claimed to have given him a statue of herself on a pillar of jasper, hence its name and its principal object of veneration.
Goya had a normal basic education, but doesn’t appear to have had either scholarly inclination nor precocious artistic talent. As was usual at the time, he went on to an apprenticeship at the age of 14, with the foremost painter in Zaragoza, José Luzán y Martinez. Those four years developed strong drawing skills, as Goya seems to have spent a lot of his time copying prints.
Goya couldn’t have picked a better time to be a young man in Zaragoza. Work on rebuilding of the Basilica had started in 1753, and was to continue for the next dozen years, resulting in one of the greatest late Baroque churches in Spain. This not only provided work for gilders like his father, and for the young Goya himself, but attracted artists and craftsmen from all over Spain.
Among those who benefited from this surge in art was another former apprentice to Luzán, whom Goya knew, Francisco Bayeu, who had been awarded a prize to fund his study in Madrid and to work as an assistant to the court painter Antonio González Velázquez. Bayeu was destined to become Goya’s brother-in-law. In 1759, both of them witnessed the visit of the new Spanish Royal Family to Zaragoza, where they stayed rather longer than they had intended, from 28 October to 1 December. Two years later, Bayeu was summoned to assist the newly appointed court painter, Anton Raphael Mengs, in Madrid.
The young Goya’s movements pass unrecorded around 1763, although he was unsuccessful in competition to enter the Royal Academy as a student. He is also thought to have painted this Consecration of Aloysius Gonzaga as Patron Saint of Youth at about that time, for the Jesuit church of Santa María del Pilar de Calatayud, currently the church of San Juan el Real.
It shows Pope Benedict XIII teaching a group of young people using Saint Louis Gonzaga (seen above in glory, bearing lily flowers) as an example. His words, given in Latin, exhort them to ‘Look, and follow his example’. Behind, the saint’s remains are being moved into the Church of San Ignacio.
If Goya remained in Madrid after his unsuccessful attempt to secure the scholarship, he may well have assisted in the painting of frescoes and learned the techniques involved, which he was to use in a few years back in Zaragoza. In 1766, he tried again to win a scholarship to the Royal Academy, but was unsuccessful.
Goya is thought to have painted this fairly conventional portrait of San Cristóbal (Saint Christopher) in 1767. It shows him bearing the infant Christ across a river, with a staff in his left hand.
His far more ambitious Apparition of the Virgin of the Pillar to Saint James is thought to date from the following year, 1768, and is a theme which he was to return to repeatedly, presumably for institutions and patrons in Zaragoza. It tells the story of the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to the Apostle James which led to the basilica in Zaragoza.
Goya then travelled to Rome in 1769, where he is thought to have undertaken a grand tour of the many cities with rich artistic traditions. Some have suggested that he travelled with Mengs, but there’s no evidence that the two were even acquainted then. He does seem to have made friends with two slightly older painters from Spain who were studying and painting there. Little else is known of Goya until he returned to Zaragoza in 1771.
Goya is thought to have painted this Sacrifice to Pan in 1771, possibly in Rome, but probably on his return to Zaragoza. That year, he entered another competition for a scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts in Parma; despite his painting being praised by the jury, he had to settle for second place.
In October 1771, subject to a practical demonstration of his ability to paint in fresco, Goya was successful (at last) in being invited to paint his first major work, in the basilica. Before showing that, at the same time he was commissioned by Joaquín Cayetano Cavero Ahones y Pueyo de la Sierra (1735-1788), Count of Sobradiel to paint a series of works to decorate the oratory of his palace in Zaragoza.
The Dream of Saint Joseph (c 1772) is one of those, which shows how his period in Rome had benefited his painting.
Goya produced drawings for his fresco for the basilica, two of which survive.
He drew this Angel’s Head (1771-72) with red chalk, showing the care he put into its foreshortening.
This oil study for the whole fresco, Adoration of the Name of God (1771-72), may well have been submitted for approval before he started work on the vault.
The finished fresco of the Adoration of the Name of God, popularly known as ‘La gloria’, is about fifteen metres across. The quarterly payments received for this huge painting at last made Goya a professional artist.
*Traditionally, Spanish surnames consist of the paternal name y the maternal name. In Goya’s case, Goya y Lucientes indicates that his father’s paternal name was Goya, and his mother’s was Lucientes. Goya’s father’s full name was José Benito de Goya y Franque, and his mother’s was Gracia de Lucientes y Salvador. The paternal part of the surname is that normally used to refer to them – hence, Goya not Lucientes. A common exception to this was the artist Pablo Picasso, whose full name was Pablo Diego Ruiz y Picasso. The particle y means and. The particle de has two meanings: it can be used before a placename, where it means of or from that place; it was also used a mark of nobility, and those who aspired to appear noble, as in the case of Goya’s family.
Janis A Tomlinson (2020) Goya, A Portrait of the Artist, Princeton UP. ISBN 978 0 691 19204 8.
Pierre Gassier and Juliet Wilson (1981) The Life and Complete Work of Francisco Goya, 2nd English edition, Harrison House. ISBN 0 517 353903.