Goya – Royalty And The Nude

I MUST now request you to retrace your steps to the Sala de Retratos, where we will spend a few moments in the company of Royal Persons. (Am I really acquiring the genteel phraseology of the official guide ? One’s voice seems to assume a startling volume in these reverberating rooms, and there are so many people standing about who overhear every word one utters, that I do not feel nearly so much at my ease talking to you here as I did outside the café. at Barcelona or on the road to Fuendetodos. But I am afraid that I must now try to talk like a historian (or does he call himself an historian ?), for I don’t suppose) unless you have specialised on Spanish history, that you are on very intimate terms with this very dull branch of the Bourbon family.)

Charles IV. succeeded to the throne of Spain on the death of his father on the 14th of December 1788. A rather bodeful date, you will observe, the devil’s cauldron of revolution coming to the boil on the other side of the Pyrenees, cousin Louis already a little pale and anxious, and the throne-shattering Corsican now entered upon his twentieth year. Foul weather ahead and a great need of a pilot aboard with a firm hand upon the wheel and a clear eye to pierce the gathering darkness. The new monarch had a straight eye for a partridge on the wing, but the dissolving view of international politics, or for that matter of politics of any kind, completely bewildered him. He had none of his father’s zeal for reforms—he was indifferent even to the cut of the national costume. The limit of his enlightenment did not reach beyond a mild interest in aeronautics. In fair-weather days he would have made a respect-able figurehead. He was sound in limb and conscience, but his wits were dull and his will weak as water. In many respects the Spanish counterpart to the British George III., but unhappily for him he had no Pitt, nor Nelson, nor Wellington, for his lieutenants. He had only the amiable literator Floridablanca, the atheistical libertine Aranda, and the well-meaning but incompetent ex-guardsman Manuel Godoy. The ship of state, pilotless, ill-manned, water-logged with debt, drove helplessly before the storm. At a time when the breakers of the French Revolution were w ell in sight, the Russian ambassador could laconically report to his Government, ” the King is either hunting or amusing himself with balloons, Aranda is occupied with experiments on the value of cork jackets in diving operations.” It never seemed to enter into anybody’s head to think of providing a cork jacket for Spain.

A far more masterful and infinitely more sinister figure is that of the Queen, Maria Luisa of Parma. She belongs to the Messalinas of history, a woman, as it has been aptly said, ” who loved men better perhaps than she was loved by them.” There are stories of how, when little more than a girl, she used to slip out of the palace at nightfall to seek unsavoury adventures in the streets of Madrid. Her lifelong adventure she owed to the discovery of a handsome young private in the royal guards, Manuel Godoy. With what relish he received her advances we cannot tell, but as his informal position as favourite of the Queen assured to him the more official status of Prime Minister of Spain it is not to be supposed that he hesitated long in accepting it. He it was who for fifteen years virtually controlled the destinies of the nation—so far as a wire-pulled puppet who danced at the bidding of Napoleon can be said to have controlled them. For the most amazing feature of this amazing intrigue was that he contrived to be ” dear Manuel ” to the King no less than to the Queen. The blind simplicity of the guileless monarch almost exceeded the limits of credibility. If an informant of Blanco-White can be believed, he expressed his views of the marital relations of royal persons in the following terms :—” We, the crowned heads, have this advantage over other people—Our honour is safe. For even if queens had the inclination to err like other women, where could they find kings and emperors to share their fault? ” In any case it would appear certain that Charles was blind to the scandal which was the common gossip of the whole town and Court of Madrid.

Such were the heads of the royal house, and about them revolved a horde of relations, each of whom was as scantily endowed as the King and Queen themselves with those attributes which are popularly supposed, irrationally enough perhaps, to be the natural inheritance of royal persons. The uninteresting features and conventional uniforms of this exceedingly commonplace family it was Goya’s duty, as Pintor de Cámara, to perpetuate in paint. A sufficiently unpromising task in all conscience ! Let us see how he acquitted himself in it.

Here they are, a round dozen of them, all on one immense canvas in a bay of the Sala de Retratos. In the centre stands the Queen, vulgar, domineering, sensual, her head turned in one direction, her eyes in another—a characteristic attitude of hers, suggestive of her crooked nature. One arm encircles the neck of her younger daughter, the other hangs down to take the hand of her six-year-old son, Francisco de Paula. ” If one saw no more of her than this naked, fleshy arm, one would know enough,” an observer has shrewdly remarked. On the right, a little in advance but unobtrusive in his dull brown coat, stands the King, massive but not imposing, rigid but without dignity, a figure not so much of Majesty as of the Heavy Father. On the left of the picture, in the foreground, a shadow falls half across the figure of the Crown Prince, Don Fernando, the future Ferdinand VII., a weak, shifty, passionate, mean-souled youth, of whom however it must be said in extenuation that he had Maria Luisa for his mother. We catch a glimpse of his younger brother peeping round his shoulder, the Infante Don Carlos. And just over his head, in the background, we can descry, dim and discreet, the rugged, earnest features of Francisco Goya himself.

(Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère ? }

” A grocer’s family who have won the big lottery prize,” is the comment of Théophile Gautier. A little less than just, I think, if that be all. At any rate it is a grocer’s family in excelsis, touched with immortality, transfigured by a perfect beauty. Yes, for I am not sure that this does not appear to me to be the most perfect in beauty and the most masterly in workmanship of all Goya’s pictures. As you gaze upon it, the ungainly figures fade away into the limbo proper to grocers’ families and nothing remains but a glamour of sunlight and rainbow sheen.

Consider the problem. Goya’s task was twofold —to satisfy his royal patrons by painting a dozen lifelike portraits, and to satisfy his own artistic conscience by producing out of this unpropitious material, without compromising the truth, a thing of sheer beauty. The truth of the portraits is self-evident. With what care he carried out the preliminary studies we know from the nine life-sized heads, each brought to a high degree of finish, some of which hang in the ante-room of the gallery. Something of the amazing vividness of the sketches is lost in the larger composition, but that I suppose was almost inevitable. The arrangement of the figures in a series of parallel vertical lines errs perhaps on the side of stiffness, or it may be that it is purposely designed to emphasise the stiffness and stolidity of a particularly stiff and stolid family. Yet although each figure remains detached and markedly individual in bearing, all are brought together, largely by the skilful management of the shadows at either extremity, into an easy unity of composition.

The desired beauty Goya sought and found in the play of sunlight on the colours of dress and uniform and the facets of stars and jewels. No other of his pictures betrays such a whole-hearted preoccupation with light. It afforded him a way of escape from the unloveliness of the ostensible subject and became the real theme of the picture. It ripples rhythmically over the figures, glancing across the pale blue of Fernando’s uniform, bursting with full brilliance on the Queen’s white lace skirt, with its fall of silk and exquisite border of gold-and-white embroidery, catching at the jewels in her hair and on her breast, flaming in the shrill scarlet of little Francisco’s coat and trousers, lingering upon the watered silk of the King’s broad ribbon, and then delightfully losing itself in the transparent shadows of the figures on the left. Goya’s reputation as a colourist may rest securely upon this achievement. It marks also his final conquest of the method of impressionism. In simple beauty of paint I think he never surpassed his handling of the draperies of the Queen’s robe. There had been nothing like it since Velasquez ; there was to be nothing like it until Manet.

Now why did Goya sign this picture with the signature of his own honest and plebeian features ? A frivolous inquiry ? Not altogether, for it raises another question of considerable interest—namely, what was his real attitude towards the royal house of Spain, and royalty in general? On this subject there has been a good deal of talk and, in my opinion, of rather foolish talk. There are some who will have it that Goya was an irreconcilable revolutionary, a Robespierre with an easel for a guillotine, whose creed was not art for art’s sake, but art for revolution’s sake. They see everywhere in Goya’s work evidences of a scarcely disguised attack upon established institutions, upon the Church and the Crown in particular. His earliest biographer, Yriarte, first gave the legend currency and it has passed so fluently from hand to hand among biographers and critics ever since that it is now generally received with the readiness of accredited fact. The learned German art historian, Richard Muther, gives his solemn sanction to the popular view. “At heart a revolutionary, an anarchist,” he writes, “even while painting these royal portraits Goya was writing the most biting pamphlets on the Divine Right of Kings.” And again : ” In Spain, the most purely monarchical country of Europe, Goya painted portraits which are a satire upon all Monarchy.”

Let us examine this charge for a moment. Upon what does it rest ? Primarily upon the undisputed fact that the members of the royal family as Goya shows them to us are for the most part very stupid or very unpleasant-looking people. But supposing that is just what in fact they were ! Of Charles III. Casanova incidentally remarks : “This King had the physiognomy and the expression of a sheep.” In Goya’s portrait of him in the Prado he has, at the worst, the expression of a rather intelligent farmer. Maria Luisa’s features—the beaked nose, the wide mouth, the cruel, greedy eyes—were commonly likened by her contemporaries to those of a bird of prey. Goya, in one portrait at least, has given her a kind of eagle-like dignity. Maria Josefa, seen in the large portrait group peering peevishly behind Don Fernando and his young wife, was so atrociously ugly that she sought for a suitor to her hand in vain, although she was the King’s sister. What was the unfortunate Court painter to do if his royal sitters so obstinately refused to look regal ?

But Velasquez, it is said,—did not that courtier-painter succeed in bestowing a certain mournful grandeur upon the Hapsburgs, who were scarcely less ill-favoured than the Bourbons ? Yes, and upon the least distinguished of their subjects also. But that was not Goya’s way. As we have seen, he never gave any of his sitters the benefit of the doubt. He always told the plain unvarnished tale of truth, with perhaps the addition of a private unflattering comment of his own. Did he treat his royal sitters differently from the rank and file ? I am inclined to think that he did. It seems to me that he went a little out of his way to make the best of them.

Turn for a moment to that single figure of the Queen hanging opposite the large group. She stands stiffly erect, habited in black, her arm gleaming against her dress in its naked sensuality. A harridan, you exclaim, coarse, brazen, impudent! But is there not also a hint of a firmness of purpose, an implication of capacity, resolution, strength and even dignity in this solitary figure, divested of all the insignia of royalty yet preserving a gesture of command and the bearing of a queen ?

Look also at the equestrian portraits of the King and Queen in the ante-room. There is as little evasion of the truth here as in the family group, but just as in the latter case the painter kindly led the eye away from the harsh reality into private bypaths of beauty of his own devising, so here too he has escaped from bondage to the bare fact by blending horse and rider into a single noble and monumental mass, flung in one tremendous silhouette against a panorama of earth and sky. Or go to the Academia de Bellas Artes and regard the portrait of Ferdinand VII. on horse-back. Perhaps a more despicable being never sat upon a throne than this degenerate youth who plotted to dethrone his father, fawned upon Napoleon when his own people were bleeding to death to resist the invader, drove almost every man of worth into exile, and consummated his reign by closing the universities and establishing an academy of bull-fighting. Yet here Goya has all but suppressed the shifty glitter of his eye, the weak sensuality of his mouth, and flushed his coarsely handsome face with triumph and the pride of half-savage manhood.

But if to the unbiassed mind the evidence of the pictures themselves is not wholly convincing, there remains the incontrovertible testimony of Goya’s own letters. In his correspondence with princes, which as Muther himself admits is ” full of the most excessive servility,” his expressions of respect may be discounted as merely common form, phraseology as stereotyped as the ” s.s.q.b.s.m.” (your servant who kisses your hand) with which to this day every ordinarily polite Spaniard subscribes his letters. But fortunately a correspondence of a far more intimate nature has been preserved, that which he carried on throughout the greater part of his life with his old schoolfellow, Martin Zapater y Claverfa of Zaragoza. To him Goya confided the familiar details of his domestic life, his health, his difficulties, his successes, all that touched him most closely. Here surely we may reasonably expect to find some outpouring of that bitter scorn of princes which his close relations with the Court may be supposed to have compelled him to keep secret in Madrid.

But what do we find ? We find him telling his friend that he was ” very pleased with the kindness with which he was received by the royal family and great personages.” He is undisguisedly proud of the friendliness of the King’s manner towards him. ” To-day I delivered a picture to the King,” he relates in another letter, ” which he himself had commanded me to paint for his brother, the King of Naples ; and I have had the felicity of having given him much pleasure, so that he not only spoke his praise but putting his hands on my shoulders half embraced me.” Impossible to mistake the note of satisfaction with which he records that half-embrace by Majesty ! Occasionally he joined the royal party on a shooting expedition, and once when he had shot a rabbit he is careful to relate how Don Luis, brother of the old King, exclaimed : ” Why, this dauber is more of an expert than I am ! ” (Este pintamonas aûn es mas aficionado que yo). Nor was he only gratified by the condescension of royalty ; he shows an equal pleasure in recounting the affability of the King’s ministers. He visited Aranjuez to paint the upstart Godoy, now become Duque de la Alcudia, who, according to Muther, was the object of his especial loathing and contempt. To his friend he writes of his visit in the following terms :—” The minister went to the greatest lengths in showing attention to me, taking me with him for a drive in his coach, assuring me of his friendship in the warmest terms possible ; permitted me to dine with my cloak on, as it was very cold ; learnt to talk on his fingers ” (Goya was at this time stone deaf) ” and ceased eating in order to converse with me.” This is not the language of contempt but of complacency.

To me it is abundantly clear that Goya was frankly pleased with the position which he held at Court, with the favour of the royal family and the deference shown him by the grandees. To judge exclusively by the passages which I have quoted it would even seem difficult to acquit him altogether of a suspicion of snobbishness. Whatever his theories may have been, and however warmly he may have given his assent to the new revolutionary doctrines, not a little of the old social prejudice still clung about him. In his heart of hearts I have no doubt that Goya was a revolutionary and, in the intellectual sense, an anarchist; but it is characteristic of him that he never allowed his intellectual beliefs to endanger his worldly prospects. Here again we encounter that shrewd, practical sagacity of the peasant, which I have already several times commented upon. The native of Fuendetodos preserved the peasant’s keen sense of the value of the sound and solid foundations of material well-being. For Don Quixote the wages of an unmarketable honour ; for Sancho his kingdom and revenues and his thirty thousand black vassals convertible into white and yellow coin. Goya took care not to offend when offence might have involved the loss of his fifty thousand reals per annum, not to speak of the five hundred ducats for the upkeep of the coach. Satirising his royal patrons was scarcely compatible with his steady pursuit of his own interest. He knew how to accommodate himself to circumstances. He never associated himself with the precarious fortunes of a political party. He contrived to retain his place in the sunshine of Court favour in the successive reigns of Charles III, Charles IV., the usurping Joseph and the restored Ferdinand. ” Kings may come and kings may go,” he well might have sung in the style of the time-serving vicar, ” but I am el Pintor de Camara, senor !

I had almost forgotten the question which raised this discussion of Goya’s political principles—the reason why he added his own portrait to those of the members of the King’s family in the royal group. The precedent of Velasquez in ” Las Meninas” must of course have been in his mind ; but when I look at that intrusive plebeian face in the back-ground I am conscious not only of an assertion of bluff Aragonese independence, an affirmation that he was as good as any of them, but also of a secret satisfaction in thus associating on the same canvas, for the attention of posterity, the persons of his Most Catholic Majesty and Francisco Goya y Lucientes of Fuendetodos.

Let us return to the ante-room of the long gallery. You may remember that when we first entered it I exclaimed, to your surprise, ” La Maja Vestida ! La Maja Desnuda,” and before I could explain the chapter came to an end. We then made a tour of the long gallery and the Salon of Ribera and the Sala de Retratos, and, all the time during which I was making random remarks about Spanish painting, I knew that you were wanting to return to the ante-room and sit down in front of the Majas and look at them for a full hour in silence. (The worst of it is that in a book there can never be any silence. Somebody has to go on talking all the time. I wonder if to all writers come those intimidating moments which overtake me so frequently—if they pause in their busy labour and overhear, with the critical detachment of one of their auditors, that same, small, monotonous voice rising and falling over so many pages, and realise with an unnerving dismay that it is their own ! It never ceases, save only on those occasional pages when the concluding paragraph of a chapter expires before reaching the bottom, and then there is a refreshing, brief, white space of silence. If I had my way I would not surround ” La Maja Desnuda ” with a buzz of words and tedious discussions as to whether she is really the Duchess of Alba or not. I would just insert the most perfect reproduction of her procurable in colour and leave her there in her divested beauty, with twelve blank pages before and after her, pages of silence, in the perusal of which the reader might for once become a dreamer. I suppose the publisher might object, but you, I am sure, print-weary reader, would not.)

Possibly you are wondering all this time what a maja really is. I confess I am not very certain myself, as there is no exact English equivalent. She was native to Madrid, and flourished at the close of the eighteenth century. She was an explosive, flashy young person, with a vivid taste for finery in dress and jewels, which you must not be too curious in questioning how she found means to gratify. She herself would probably tell you that she kept a flower stall or helped in a shop, and we must take her word for it. The majo, her masculine companion, who did a little tinkering or huckstering in his more strenuous moments, shared her passion for extravagance in attire, her indolence, arrogance, audacity and fire. Together they inhabited the garlicky quarter of Lavapies and Maravillas, an irresponsible population drawn from all parts, combining in a single character the swagger of Andalucia, the gaiety of Valencia, the sombre fougue of Castille, inflamed by a fierce patriotism, if the meaning of that ill-used word may be extended to imply a passionate attachment to the national costume and a hearty detestation of the French. The maja was closely akin to the manola, and the ancestress of the chula of the present day.

That Goya’s maja was a real maja seems improbable, at any rate she can scarcely have been a typical one. Legend has it that the title merely disguises the identity of the beautiful Duquesa de Alba, with whom the artist was on terms of great

It is impossible to write anything about Goya without this elusive lady turning up like a bad sixpence, if she will forgive me the locution. She is the heroine of that amazing and improbable romance which has been woven out of the meagre authentic details of the painter’s life. This much is certain, that she charmed Goya away from her elderly rival, the Duchess of Osuna, who had rather adopted him as her protégé, that her frustrated competitor appealed to the Queen and procured a royal order enforcing her temporary withdrawal to her country seat at San Lucar in intimacy, but although there is a resemblance between the two, in figure rather than in face, the ascription is more than doubtful. The Majas were originally in possession of Godoy, who could no doubt have disclosed the identity of the model in his Memoirs, had he chosen to do so. Goya painted her twice, clothed and unclothed, in the same posture, reclining with her hands clasped behind her head on a divan of green velvet spread with silvery draperies and cushions. Clothed, she wears a yellow and black bolero jacket, a sash of silvered rose, and a clinging white lavender-tinted skirt which reveals rather than hides the contours of her limbs.

Of all the nudes reclining at their ease in the galleries of Europe ” La Maja Desnuda ” is the nudest. Some there are whose nudity seems to clothe them like a natural garment. The nudity of Titian’s ” Eve,” for instance, just a few yards farther down

Andalucia ; that Goya accompanied her thither and on the journey contracted the chill which unhappily resulted in his permanent loss of hearing ; that he shared her exile for a year, at the end of which he returned to Madrid at the instant command of the King. It may further be noted that, at the time when these reputed portraits of the Duchess of Alba were painted, Goya had already entered upon his fifty-sixth year, a rather frosty season, surely, for the blossoming of romance I

The Court painter did not ” abandon the emoluments and prestige’-’- of his post, as Sir Frederick Wedmore has stated in his admirable summary in ” Painters and Painting» He was careful to obtain a special leave of absence, and returned promptly when he was recalled, a victor, nevertheless, since he succeeded in obtaining the recall of the Duchess also the gallery, seems to be less physical than spiritual. She belongs to a primitive, elemental world, as yet unperplexed by conventions and proprieties. She is the eternal feminine, but more eternal than feminine, appealing not so much with the particularity of a woman as with the generality of a fact of nature, one in kind with the green earth and its teeming progeny. By the side of this palpitating maja the ” Venus ” of Velasquez appears scarcely to be a nude at all, so statuesque is she in her marmoreal immobility. Moreover there was a gravity and circumspection in Velasquez’s outlook which his less evenly constituted countryman never attained to. He seems to have observed his model with a kind of divine detachment, to have been interested in her merely as a beautiful surface bounded by a beautiful line. I have a private fancy that he never saw her face except in the reflection of the mirror, and I am sure that he never addressed a word to her, unless it were to inquire politely whether she was not tired of lying so long in the same position. Perhaps Manet’s ” Olympia ” is next-of-kin to Goya’s ” Maja.” She also strikes you with the same unmodified shock of vitality ; but she is more distant and impersonal ; there is no allurement in that spare, anatomical body, no invitation in that square and unflinching gaze. If she could speak I always feel that she would merely remark : ” Observe, I beg you, the perfect quality of my painting.”

” La Maja Desnuda ” says nothing. She lies and waits. Her repose is all expectancy. Her body can scarcely be said to be at rest, so keenly does an inner vitality set the flesh quivering, and the pulses athrob. In the ” Venus ” of Velasquez the bounding lines of the figure are long and level like those of sleeping waves ; here they are rippling and restless with the motion of a laughing, dancing sea. ” Venus” will never change her posture till the end of time ; you cannot gaze at the “Maj a ” without momentarily expecting to see the foot slip over the edge of the coverlet, the arms untwine behind the head. It is notable how all the expression is concentrated in the body ; the face is relatively summary in execution, and though it has a certain smiling seductiveness, yet had it been averted, like that of ” Venus,” there would have been no subtraction from the complete expression of the personality. The figure too, has an inexplicable flavour of modernity. She owns no kinship with the passive Susannas and timeless Eves of the past. She is alien to the elect and temperate Madonnas. And how infinitely far is she removed from the grave, eternal type of Greece. All that woman had gained of sharper definition of personality, of subtler consciousness, of finer perception, of added delicacy, allurement and nervous sensibility, in her long journey from the ancient world to the dawn of the nineteenth century, is expressed or suggested in that single, frail, sensitive, flawless form. As one begins to divine the significance of the ” Maj a Desnuda” one begins to doubt the existence of an eternal feminine. For there was one feminine of Antiquity, another of the Middle Ages, another of the Renaissance and another of the Rococo. If woman is elemental, as she is said to be, she is the most mutable element of creation, changeful as the colours of a jewel when the light falls upon it at varying angles, adapting herself body and soul to the shifting moods of the world, the same neither yesterday nor today nor for ever.

” Daughter of the ancient Eve, We know the gifts ye gave—and give. Who knows the gifts which you shall give, Daughter of the newer Eve ? “