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Francisco Goya - Spain's First Painter of the Modern Era

La Maja Vestida (The Clothed Woman) by Francisco Goya  The Prado Museum  Madrid, Spain

La Maja Vestida (The Clothed Woman) by Francisco Goya The Prado Museum Madrid, Spain

Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya 1746-1828

One of the loveliest paintings, in my opinion, of all time is La Maja Vestida (The Clothed Woman) by Spain's renowned painter, Francisco Goya. At the time of the painting of this portrait, Goya was the royal court painter for Charles IV of Spain. Goya is considered the first modern European painter and the first to leave the painting techniques of the Old Masters behind. His content and subjects of his paintings differed from the Old Masters and his use of light and bold brush strokes helped to bring painting into the modern era in Europe. Goya, therefore, is as transitional figure in Spain's artistic history.

Along with La Maja Vestida, Goya painted the companion portrait, La Maja Desnuda (The Naked Woman), of the same woman in the same repose on the chaise lounge. Both were painted between 1797 and 1800 and today, both paintings hang side by side in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain, and they have so since 1910. The identity of the model and why Goya created these portraits is still unknown today. Las Majas are as mysterious as the Mona Lisa and is one of the enduring mysteries of time left behind by Goya.

The woman was rumored to be the 13th Duchess of Alba, Maria del Pilar Theresa Cayetana de Silva y Alvarez de Toledo, and Goya's mistress. Today, there is some question as to the validity of this and in the biography, Goya, by Robert Hughes, it is stated that many scholars reject this theory and believe her to be Pepita Tudo. Some believe she is a composite of several different female models. At the time these were painted, they belonged to the collection of Prime Minister of Spain, Manuel de Godoy, the Duke of Alcudia. In fact, in 1815, the Spanish Inquisition summoned Goya to reveal who had commissioned him to create La Maja Desnuda, because it is said to be the first clear depiction of female public hair in a large Western painting. Spain was scandalized by the painting, but today no one knows if Goya actually answered the Inquisition, but he did live to paint another day.

The Third of May 1808  painted by Francisco Goya in 1814.

The Third of May 1808 painted by Francisco Goya in 1814.

Third of May 1808

Another of Goya's paintings that is a favorite of mine is The Third of May 1808. It was a scene that Goya actually painted in 1814, and today also hangs in The Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain. Goya painted it to commemorate Spain's resistance to Napoleon's armies during the 1808 French occupation of Spain. It was commissioned by the provisional government of Spain at Goya's request and portrays the horrors and brutality of war. It marks a clear break from painting conventions of this time period and is one of the first paintings of the modern era in Europe and Spain. Kenneth Clark, art historian, has said of this painting, "it is the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject and in intention." This painting also inspired a series of paintings by Edoard Manet and Pablo Picasso's Guernica.

When Napoleon and the French army invaded Spain, it was because Spain was strategically and politically important to French interests because Spain controlled access to the Mediterranean Sea. On May 2, 1808 the Madrilenos rose up against the French and is known as Dos de Mayo Uprising. The French calvary charged against the Spanish rebels in the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. Goya also made this a companion painting, the Second of May of this uprising, but the painting that has always had the most affect on me and the rest of the world is The Third of May 1808. Goya painted the French reprisals for the uprising as before dawn as hundreds of Spaniards were rounded up and executed at several locations in Madrid. This is what Goya wanted to paint and preserve for posterity.

This painting is dark and gloomy with great light and illumination in the center of the canvas. Here the executioners and the victims face each other abruptly across a very narrow space. Goya wanted his audience to feel the fear and terror of war and of this particular situation. Art historian, Kenneth Clark said, "Goya contrasted fierce repetition of soldiers attitudes and steely line of their rifles and crumbling irregularity of (the figures) their target." The lattern is situated on the ground to throw dramatic light on the dark scene. Goya puts the brightest illumination of the painting on those being executed, and especially the monk in prayer. To the immediate right and center of the canvas, other condemned figures stand next in line to be shot, terrified. The man kneeling amid the bloodied corpses of those already executed has the look of sheer terror on his face. He is dressed in a plain white shirt and his sun-burnt face tells the viewer he is a simple laborer.

On the right side of the painting is the firing squad, painted in the shadows and as a monolithic unit with bayonettes and helmets. They are a relentless unmoving column. This is probably one of the best anti-war paintings ever painted in the modern era. The Third of May lay in storage for 30-40 years before being shown in public because Charles IV did not consider the painting "suitable subject matter" for the royal collection. It has remained one of my favorite by Goya because of the depiction of the horrors of war and my eyes are always rivited to that terrified Spaniard being executed by the French.

Charles IV of Spain and His Family  1800-01 by Francisco Goya

Charles IV of Spain and His Family 1800-01 by Francisco Goya

Charles IV of Spain and His Family

One of Goya's duties as royal court painter was to paint the official portraits of the monarchs and their families. But, when Goya painted Charles IV's portrait with his family, he was painting it a little "tongue in cheek." This is an oil on canvas painting and was completed in the summer of 1800.

Goya's painting is modeled after Spain's previous great painter, Velazquez's Las Meninas. Velazquez set his royal subjects in a naturalistic plausible setting and Velazquez painted himself in his painting. Goya does the same with Charles IV and his family. Goya, in the back on the left of the painting, is looking outwards to the viewer as in Las Meninas. While Velazquez's painting is a warm, lovely painting of his royal subjects, Goya's has an atmosphere of "intimate suffocation." Goya presents his royal subjects on "a stage facing the public." The light and largest illumination in the center of the painting is on the Queen, not the King, as she was believed by the Spanish to be the "true power behind the throne." Charles IV was from the Bourbon dynasty and was not considered Spanish enough nor intelligent enough to be ruling Spain. He was also a cuckolded husband by the Queen, and Charles became the laughing stock of Spain. Goya has a grim smile on his mouth as he looks from the painting as if to say, "Look at them and judge for yourself."

Goya was not a particular political person or greatly interested in politics; however, he never failed to get his point across or his true meaning in his paintings. These three paintings are probably the most important paintings of Goya's career and portray his unique and creative style, different from that of the Old Masters of Europe. He led Spain and Europe to a new level of painting and is well remembered for that.

Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 04, 2012:

Yes, Alastar, Goya is truly a master and one of my favorites. These three paintings by him are my favorites as his paintings took a dark road towards the end of his life. The Third of May is haunting to me, and as I said, the best anti-war message there is. I'm so glad you enjoyed this. Many of these Spanish hubs are lessons I taught in the classroom when I was teaching Spanish, as we covered everything, history, art, culture etc as well as the language. Thanks so much for stopping by and I always enjoy your insightful comments.

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on June 03, 2012:

Goya was an innovator and a true master. Enjoyed your article Suzette, especially your breakdown on the Third of May painting. That piece of art says it all for what Goya wanted to portray for posterity as you wrote. The firing squad has always reminded me of automatons, which no doubt they were in a way. And how cool with Goya in his own painting of the Royals. He did have asense of humor suppose.

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