December 1784 brought welcome change to Goya’s household: their newborn son Francisco Javier Pedro survived birth and started to flourish, unlike his deceased siblings. The artist’s altarpiece in San Francisco el Grande was being appreciated by all who saw it, and the following year he finally succeeded in the promotion which he had long sought.
His painting of the curious myth of Hercules and Omphale may have been completed by the end of 1784, or might date from around 1810. It refers to a bizarre episode in which the classical hero was forcibly cross-dressed and subjugate to Queen Omphale as punishment. Goya doesn’t show Hercules wearing women’s clothes but puts this trio in contemporary fashion, as the hero attempts the challenging woman’s task of threading a needle. Although a wonderful depiction of this myth, it seems out of place.
In June 1785, Goya was appointed deputy director of painting at the Royal Academy, a role into which he threw himself with great enthusiasm, in both attending council meetings and teaching. He was also commissioned by the Duke and Duchess of Osuna to paint their portraits. The following year, they commissioned him again to paint seven ‘country’ views for their palace at La Alameda, which he delivered by the end of April 1787.
Of those, Transporting a Stone (1786-87) shows a prepared stone arriving on an ox cart during the construction of what appears to be the Alameda Castle, which has now been swallowed up by the city of Madrid. The Duchess of Osuna used stone from the ruins of the castle to create a large and beautiful park around her palace, in what’s known as El Capricho Park. In the foreground one of the workers is being carried away on a stretcher, presumably after an accident in construction work, in a small scene of social realism.
In July 1786, Goya was at last appointed Painter to the King, and held that position until the death of King Carlos III in December 1788. His first substantial commission was to provide a set of thirteen cartoons to be turned into tapestries for the dining room at El Pardo. The Royal Tapestry Factory was being reorganised, and was in need of work for the king. This also marked the end of Goya’s feud with his brother-in-law, who had recommended his appointment.
Goya presented his sketches for these in the autumn of 1786, and the completed paintings were delivered the following year. They consist of a central series of the seasons, rightly recognised today as one of Goya’s finest series of paintings, together with some more social realist images.
His sketch for Autumn (1786) shows Majas and Majos receiving grapes being picked by the hard-working labourers behind them.
The finished cartoon, Autumn: The Grape Harvest (1786-87), uses the same composition but refines the bright sky.
Goya’s sketch for the Winter Scene (1786) is strongly evocative too, with snow on the dog’s back.
This finished version of The Snowstorm (Winter) (1786-87) is more realistic.
Goya’s greatest achievement in this series, and probably the finest of all his cartoons, is that for summer, seen here in the sketch of The Threshing Floor (1786). Although the huge finished version is more finely detailed, his brushwork there is also surprisingly loose.
Other cartoons, such as Boy on a Ram (1786-87), revisited earlier themes, including childhood.
Goya’s painting of The Holy Family from about 1787 is the companion to that of Tobias and the Angel, shown below. Both were unknown until they were rediscovered in 2003, and have since been acquired for the Prado in Madrid. Little is known of the history of these two paintings, but they’re both highly accomplished religious works.
Goya’s next cartoons for tapestries were for a series of eight for the Bedchamber of the Infantas at El Pardo. He presented his sketches to King Carlos III in the summer of 1788, and the artist worked on the final paintings over the following winter, only to be interrupted by the death of the king on 14 December.
In the sole survivor of his sketches, Goya shows the traditional game of Blind Man’s Buff (1788), in which the sighted players hold hands and form a ring around the blindfolded ‘victim’. Although this should provide them with more safety, this group has chosen to play on the bank of a river.
Following the death of King Carlos III, Goya was kept busy with Academy business in early 1789, including vetting a flood of bad portraits of the new King Carlos IV, almost all of which were ordered to be painted over because of their appalling quality. He then had to paint fresh half-length portraits of the King and Queen, in his new appointment as court painter to King Carlos IV.
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.