In the late 1770s, Francisco Goya (1746–1828) developed his skills in etching by creating a series of prints of the paintings of Velázquez in the Royal Collection. These were sold in Madrid from 1778 onwards, and seem to have helped build a reputation beyond the royal court. The tapestries being produced from his paintings were also very well received, despite occasional friction between those who had to turn his increasingly sophisticated images into weaving.
When Mengs died in Rome in the summer of 1779, Goya was one of those who took the opportunity to request promotion. On this occasion, though, he was again unsuccessful. To add to his woes, Spain and Britain came to blows over Gibraltar, and King Carlos III called a halt to the production of cartoons for tapestries in 1780.
Goya was successful, though, in two important respects. He was admitted as a member of the Royal Academy in May 1780, and he was awarded a commission to paint two domes in the basilica back home in Zaragoza.
The domes in the basilica didn’t go so well. The commission had been granted thanks to Goya’s brother-in-law Ramón Bayeu, who painted the other two domes at the same time. Although their sketches had been approved by the Building Committee, Bayeu was seen as supervising Goya, a relationship which didn’t work out at all well. Goya’s domes didn’t win approval, and it was proposed that Bayeu retouch them, which sparked Goya’s anger.
This detail from The Queen of Martyrs in the Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza can’t do justice to the whole, but does give an indication of the concerns which were raised. Its figures are modern, and no doubt didn’t match Bayeu’s more traditional style. The golden heads of infants surrounding the Virgin are wonderful.
Goya remained isolated from his brother-in-law, and almost exiled from his home city as a result. Soon after his return to Madrid, Goya received another commission for a religious work, this time for a convent church just a short walk from the royal palace, and a royal commission – an opportunity to transform his career.
Goya put two years of work into this painting of San Bernardino of Siena Preaching before Alfonso V of Aragon (1782-83) for the Real Basílica de San Francisco el Grande in Madrid. It’s huge: almost five metres high, and three across, and a complicated composition based on a pyramid, with the arms and head of the saint forming its apex. Goya includes his self-portrait at the right edge, in one of the few faces which isn’t looking up at the saint.
Over this period, Goya completed a succession of portraits, although he seems not to have enjoyed painting them as much. His genre paintings looked more at the trials and tribulations of childhood, which isn’t surprising given his own growing family.
Although his most important official portrait of 1783 was of the Count of Floridablanca, Secretary of State, it’s this delightful child portrait of María Teresa de Borbón y Vallabriga, who later became the Condesa de Chinchón, which stands out in every respect. The surface textures of her deep veil, her companion dog, and the dramatic background of the mountains at Arenas de San Pedro are a tour de force. This young girl was the middle child of the Infante Don Luis, shown later.
This more mundane portrait of a man, now thought to be Francesco Sabatini, from about 1783, shows that, while he may not have found the work inspiring, Goya was a fine painter of portraits.
More of a challenge was this group of The Family of the Infante Don Luis, painted in 1783 at Arenas de San Pedro. The ‘infante’ is Luis de Borbón y Farnesio (1727–1785), youngest brother of King Carlos III. In 1776, he married María Teresa de Vallabriga (at the centre, attended by her hairdresser), who was 34 years younger and not royalty, making the marriage ‘morganatic’, and something of a problem to the King and state. The couple had three children who had no entitlement to a place in the succession, and to ensure that they posed no threat, they were forbidden from approaching the capital, Madrid. Goya increased the informality of this group by adding himself at work, at the lower left.
Unfortunately for Goya, his hopes of this painting accelerating his promotion at court were dashed when the Infante Don Luis died two years later.
At some time during these years 1780-85, Goya painted several works on the life of the child. The first shown here is now dark and its image indistinct, but leads on to a small series of oil sketches which he appears to have made well away from the court in Madrid.
With Pain Comes Gain. School Scene is small and quite Hogarthian in its depiction of corporal punishment in a school. The teacher raises a whip to strike the bare buttocks of one of a succession of pupils, as the more studious continue at their work seemingly disinterested in the suffering of their comrades.
The series of six surviving oil sketches were probably painted between 1782-85, when Goya was in Madrid.
Children Playing Soldiers revisits an earlier theme which had been a cartoon for a tapestry. Brushstrokes are visible in the sky, but there’s attention to fine detail in the figures and their dress.
Children Playing with a See-Saw is more urban, with two pairs of children fighting, and a small monkey on a chain on the top of the wall at the right.
Children Playing Leap-Frog shows a group practicing acrobatics, some of the children so poor that their clothing is torn badly, and hasn’t even been patched. Brushstrokes are again obvious, this time on the sheets which are hanging out to dry. The tree at the upper right has been sketched in quickly.
Children Bird-Nesting is the busiest of the series, showing a dozen children in all, most with torn and ragged clothing.
This brings my account to 1785, when Goya’s fortunes were ready for another change.
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.