Goya – The Maja Nude

All of Goya’s portraits (this represents a duchess of the Spanish court) are strikingly real and individual. They are different in this regard from his decorative paintings, such as Blindman’s Buff and Girl and Muffled Men, which are frankly artificial, whimsical fantasies, more in the style of the eighteenth century French. At the same time, they never lose a certain lightness and delicacy of touch. Like Velazquez, Goya proved that vivid realism need not be heavy, ugly or coarse-fibred. When, as in his portrait of King Charles IV and his Family, physical ugliness, flashy pomp, the signs of gross dissipation, stupidity and awkwardness are the essential attributes of his subject, he reveals them with penetrating honesty. We cannot say how much he heightened these qualities, but the net result is devastating satire, all the more piercing for being subtle — as, for the sake of prudence, it had to be.

When, as in The Maja Nude, reality itself is physically charming, finely textured and softly voluptuous, he sets down these qualities with equal vividness. It is not exact representation, but selective artistry, to bring out as he does here the essential traits that give this figure its unequalled sensuous allure: its delicate, rich smoothness, and its firm, slender roundness. The body is made to stand out distinctly from its triple background of pillows, couch and wall, as the climax to a series of rising accents in color and modelling. The wall is flat, dull gray-brown; the couch intenser blue-green, with but a hint of roundness in the velvet folds. The pillows and sheet are painted as cloth had never been painted before, in sketchy strokes of white over blue, that convey with utmost reality the filmy diaphanous quality of lace and gauzy silks. In the Maja Clothed, the companion piece, this interest in filmy cloths is developed into a bright pattern of orange, green and rose veils, crushed into countless small transparent folds over a skin that is also more warmly colored. Here there is less pattern, less brilliance; the climax is given in the shape and texture of the body itself. It is drawn with unnatural lightness, seeming to float on the lace, in a pose that suggests no weight or muscular strain. Its curves are more deeply indented, quickly rising and falling; than in the Ingres or Giorgione reclining nudes, but softer and rounder than in Manet’s angular Olympia. It owes much to Titian and Rubens in its modelling with rich blended tints, and this accounts for a large portion of its charm as contrasted with the hard wooden flesh of the Ingres, or the plastery pink and white of an ordinary Boucher. But it is less robust, more delicate and sinuous than the figures of Titian or Rubens. The pale suffusion of blue in the shadows and veins, and the background notes of blue in the lace and velvet, do much to create this distinctive quality of airy lightness and translucency.