By the early 1770s, Francisco Goya (1746–1828) was making a name and reputation for himself as a provincial painter in his home city of Zaragoza, Spain. His attempts to get recognition with the court in Madrid hadn’t really achieved much, although his friend Francisco Bayeu’s success there promised change in Goya’s fortunes. He had also started making his own etchings, which were at this stage exploratory, but which were later to prove so important to his art.
At some time in the early 1770s, Goya and Francisco Bayeu’s sister Maria Josefa promised themselves to one another, and they married in Madrid in 1773, with the substantial help of a dowry from the King. After his marriage into the Bayeu family, Goya’s fortunes started to improve. Later that year, he was commissioned to paint a cycle of large frescoes as part of a long-term project to beautify the chapel of the Carthusian monastery of the Aula Dei to the north-east of Zaragoza. Goya and his new wife returned from Madrid to Zaragoza for this major work.
The Betrothal of the Virgin is one of the seven surviving paintings in Goya’s monumental cycle showing The Life of the Virgin which he painted in 1774, using oil on plaster rather than traditional fresco media. Despite their disfigurement at the hands of clumsy restorers, they retain much of the grandeur they had when the artist had first painted them.
Over this period, Goya seems to have secured other smaller commissions, largely for religious works.
He is thought to have painted Lot and his Daughters in about 1774. Here he tackles a difficult story from the Old Testament Book of Genesis, Chapter 19, with a subtle composition, and a reference in the left background to the bigger narrative of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, with Lot’s wife turned to a sculture of salt, lit by the flames from the burning cities.
His tondo portrait of Saint Barbara was painted in about 1775, and includes cameo scenes from her hagiography. At the right, her father raises his sword to behead her and is struck by lightning for his crime.
In early 1775, Goya was summoned to Madrid, where he and his family joined his brother-in-law and his extended family. Goya had been commissioned to produce nine cartoons of hunting scenes which were to be turned into tapestries by the Royal Factory in Santa Bárbara. In these, he was working under the direction of Bayeu, and with Bayeu’s younger brother Ramón. They were delivered in two batches, in May and October 1775, and were to prove the first of many such cartoons which he made for the accommodation of the Prince and Princess of Asturias, heir apparent to the Spanish throne. In this case, the tapestries were to decorate their dining room in El Escorial.
The chosen theme was ideal for Goya, who was a keen hunter, and already had his own hunting dogs. His technical knowledge and insight into the real world of hunting shine through in these paintings.
Dogs and Hunting Gear, which he delivered in May 1775, shows a fine pair of dogs, guns and the other equipment used by the hunter of the day. The dogs are lifelike, and Goya captures the glinting metal excellently. Throughout these paintings, the landscapes used as backdrops appear comparatively antiquated.
Hunting with a Decoy, another of the first batch delivered in May 1775, includes a fine portrait of a dog, together with five different birds. At the upper right, an owl and another bird are shown in flight, with a different owl and a small bird in cages below.
The Quail Shoot, delivered in the second batch in October 1775, is one of the more complex of this series, in which the two hunters in the left foreground are shooting at a quail in flight, while others are riding with their hunting dogs. Presumably to try to convey the impression of movement, Goya has elongated those dogs a little too incredibly. The castellated buildings in the left distance are indicated quite sketchily, perhaps to simplify the task for the tapestry-makers.
The Angler, also in the second batch in October 1775, is one of several narrow vertical panels, and the only one which shows fishing.
There’s some disagreement as to when Goya painted this Self-portrait: although it has been dated to 1771-75, it has also been suggested that he painted this in 1783 when he was 37.
Goya’s hunting scenes were a departure from his previous paintings in many ways. To be useful as cartoons, they had to be light and clear, breaking from darker tradition. They were also his first significant genre paintings, which were to be so central in his early career.
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.