Goya – The Tapestry Cartoons

LET us descend the long flight of stone steps leading into the cellars beneath the Prado. Did you ask why ? Because in this underworld a grateful nation exposes to a dim but public view one of the earliest phases of Goya’s art—the designs which he executed for the tapestries of the royal palaces of the Pardo and the Escorial.

From the days of the Catholic Kings onwards Spain has always had a special love for tapestries. There is a sumptuousness and splendour, an obvious and easily calculated wealth, in these laborious products of the loom which appeals to a temperament that delights in magnificence rather than in beauty. Moreover, they lend themselves more readily than paintings to civic and ecclesiastical pomp, to processions, fiestas and autos. The taste is yet alive. We have seen how during Holy Week the citizens of Zaragoza promenade with a careless pride up and down their cathedral aisles, when these are transformed by gorgeous hangings into palatial corridors ; and I have ‘passed down the Alcalâ in Madrid at the time of the Fiestas Constantinas and have seen the white walls ablaze with embroidered cloths and silk hangings and tapestries, and among them the modern reproductions of these same designs by Goya which are buried in the cellars of the Prado.

Originally the tapestries came from Flanders, from Arras, the cradle of the art, whence they were known as panos de Ras ; but at an early date there were native factories in Seville and Madrid. One of the rooms of the factory of Santa Isabel, with girls spinning and weaving among the dusty sunbeams, provided Velasquez with a subject of gleaming and intricate beauty, ” Las Hilanderas.” When, after the War of the Spanish Succession, the Bourbons succeeded to the crown of Spain, Philip V. established the factory of Santa Barbara in a suburb of Madrid, and entrusted it to the direction of the Fleming, Vandergoten.l In 1762 the management passed into the hands of a painter who was the recognised dictator of the arts in Spain at this period, the egregious Bohemian, Antonio Rafael Mengs.

Possibly you, had never heard of Mengs—so brief is the bubble reputation of the Academician. But Mengs was a very great man in his time, a fact which is surely somewhat prejudicial to the time. (It is our pictures that judge us, you see !) Mengs was a fine example of the type of painter who breathes more easily in the close atmosphere of academies than in the open air of life. His was the nature which begets academies and of which academies are begotten. His very name, with its reminiscence of Correggio and the great Umbrian, was academic, but for that the would-be prophetic soul of his father must be held answerable. His life was academic. For three years, under the superintendence of his father, painter to the Court of Saxony, he studied antique sculpture and the frescoes of Raphael and Michelangelo by day and devoted himself to mastering the technique of painting in oils by night. The contrast with Goya’s manner of employing his time in Rome leaps to the mind. If report be true, the only museum that he greatly cared to study was the eternal museum of the street, where are to be found the archetypes of all the masters, and his nights he devoted to investigating a more intricare lore than the technique of painting in oils. He cut straight into the heart of life. Mengs, the industrious apprentice, perambulating his galleries with the indefatigability of a Baedeker, took a circuitous route and never arrived there in the end. He arrived instead at the conclusion that the painter must borrow expression from Raphael, grace and harmony from Correggio, truth and charm of colour from Titian. Goya borrowed from two more generous lenders than these—Nature and his own soul.

While making learned researches among the classical beauties of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Mengs was discovered by the King of Naples, who was on the eve of sailing for Spain to ascend the throne of that kingdom, which his brother’s death had left vacant. Charles III., with creditable aspiration to play the part of Mæeenas, though Nature had not cast him for the rôle, summoned the namesake of Raphael to Madrid, and despatched a man-of-war to convey him to the coasts of Spain. Mengs came and conquered. He was appointed painter to the King and director of the Academia de San Fernando, received a salary of twelve hundred and fifty pounds a year, a house, a carriage, and the title of ” Excellency.” He became arbiter of the arts of Spain.

For a more intimate portrait of the man him-self we must turn to the memoirs of that prince of polite rascals, Casanova, whose bitter pen sketched so many inimitable vignettes of the more scandalous side of the eighteenth century. Whilst in Madrid, waiting Micawber-like for something to turn up, the Venetian, who had a friend as well as an enemy at every court, spent some of his abundant leisure in the society of the court painter.

In his malicious, satirical way, he relates the following significant anecdote. ” One day I ventured to tell him that the hand of a figure which I was looking at in one of his pictures was faulty, because the fourth finger was shorter than the index. He answered with some bitterness that so it ought to be, and, in proof, showed me his hand. I began to laugh and showed him mine, remarking that I was sure the formation of my hand was the same as that of all the descendants of Adam.

” `From whom do you suppose that I am descended then ? ‘

” `Of that I know nothing, but it’s certain you are not of my species.’

” `It’s you who are not of mine, nor of that of any other men, for all well-formed hands of men and women are like mine and not like yours.’

” `I bet you a hundred doubloons you are wrong.’

” He got up, threw down his palette and brushes, and rang for his servants, remarking : ” `Now we shall see.’

” When the servants came he looked at their hands, examined them and found the index finger shorter than the annular. For the first time I saw him laugh, and seeking to end the dispute with a jest he said

” `I am delighted to be able to boast of being unique in something.’ ”

But it is clear that he was considerably upset by that miscalculation of the fraction of an inch.

Some remarks of his on the subject of finish in painting, which Casanova records, are even more illuminating.

” He had painted a Magdalene which was in truth of a surprising beauty. For ten days he had said to me every morning, ` This evening the picture will be finished.’ One day I remarked to him that he had made a mistake the day before in telling me that the picture would be finished in the evening.

” `No,’ he said, ` for to the eyes of ninety-nine connoisseurs out of a hundred it would appear to be finished. But I am jealous of the judgment of the hundredth and I look at it with his eyes. You must know that there is no picture in the world that is more than relatively finished. This Magdalene will be finished only when I stop working on it, and even then it will only be finished relatively, for it is certain that if I were to work on it one day more it would be more finished. In your Petrarch there is not a sonnet that is really finished. Of whatsoever comes from the hand or mind of man nothing is perfect—unless it be a mathematical calculation.’ ”

Thus the oracle of the academies. For him art would appear to be not merely long but interminable ; genius very literally an infinite capacity for taking pains, conditioned by an infinite number of days to take pains in ; and perfection possible only in so far as the work of art approached the incontrovertible logic of a mathematical calculation. Goya too had something to say about finish. ” A picture is finished,” he remarked, “when its effect is true.” One day more and it would be not more but less finished.

It must be set down to the credit of Mengs that he was free enough from prejudice to admit the merit of the work of so unacademical a painter as Goya. Goya could also count on the good offices of another influential member of the academic circle, his brother-in-law, Francisco Bayeu. Too little is known of his marriage with Josefa, Bayeu’s sister, to enable us to tell whether it was a love match or not. It is not easy to reconcile the popular view of Goya as a passionate, head-strong and heartstrong revolutionary with the notion of a mariage de convenance ; but this view has always omitted to take account of another equally prominent side of Goya’s nature, that shrewd, practical, calculating temper of the peasant. It is impossible to review the course of his life without coming to the conclusion that there was more of Sancho Panza than of Don Quixote in his composition. The face of the pallid Josefa, as we see it in his portrait in the Prado, acerb, dumb, reproachful, with her large troubled eyes, her wasted cheeks, her bitter, tight-shut mouth, is assuredly not one likely to have captivated the painter of La Maja Desnuda. I am inclined to believe that Goya realised quite consciously that the hand of the sister of the eminent court painter could bestow advantages solid enough to compensate for the renunciation of more exciting charms, which, as a matter of fact, he never made any serious effort to renounce at all.

In 1776, a year after his return from Rome, Goya received a commission to execute a series of cartoons for the tapestries which were about to be woven for the dining hall and bed-chamber of the King’s son, the Principe de Asturias, in the palace of El Pardo. Between the years 1776 and 1791 Goya painted forty-five designs for the Fábrica de Tapices de Santa Barbara, of which thirty-seven are now preserved in the Prado—the remainder having gone astray in the way in which things are wont to do in Spain. For the complete set he received in all some two hundred thousand reals. Upon these cartoons he founded his reputation. They drew upon him the regard of the King and the Court. Goya had no obscure period of apprenticeship to pass through. He passed almost at a single bound from the obscurity of a desultory art student in Rome to the notoriety of a fashionable painter in Madrid.

I wonder what your first impression will be when you stand before this series of spreading canvases. Not impossibly one of disappointment. You may pronounce the colouring to be crude and inharmonious, the tones lacking in subtlety, the figures flat like silhouettes, the quality of the paint uninteresting, the general effect not unlike that of scenic decoration. But before pronouncing a verdict recall again the intention of the work. These are not primarily pictures, they are cartoons for tapestries. A closer study of them, taking account of their chronological order, will reveal the fact that Goya deliberately adapted himself to the conditions of the undertaking.

At the outset he did not fully realise the nature of the work that was demanded of him. The first two designs which he produced, “La Merienda ” (The Picnic on the Banks of the Manzanares), and ” El Baile ” (The Dance near San Antonio de la Florida), are painted without any regard for the subsequent process of reproduction on the loom. They are full of elaborate incident and detail, the tones carefully graduated, the figures rendered with a realistic suggestion of solidity. The officials at the factory of Santa Barbara -protested against the difficulty of reproducing them. They complained that Goya’s figures were ” dandies and flashy wenches so tricked out with coifs, ribands, fal-lals, gauzes, trimmings and other trifles that much time and patience were wasted on them with little or no result.” Another of his earlier pictures, ” El Ciego Tocando La Guitarro” (The Blind Guitar Player) was actually returned to him with a request that he should simplify its intricacies. This Goya did, minimising the half-tones, accentuating the colours, and surrounding the figures with a faint white outline, which is still visible, so as to facilitate the process of copying.

This incident must also be taken, I think, as qualifying the accepted notion of Goya’s character as that of an implacable, self-willed, arbitrary genius, brooking no outside direction or interference. That he should have been irritated at this hampering restriction was only natural—every artist resents dictation as to how he shall pursue his work—but his annoyance did not prevent him from submitting to it, just as he submitted, after protest, to the prudish objections of the Chapter at Zaragoza. The artist might revolt, but the peasant was determined not to lose his job and his pay.

In the later cartoons, therefore, a marked change of manner is noticeable. They become simpler and more purely decorative in design. The colours are put on in broad flat washes, without gradations of tone. The landscape is simplified ; the middle distance disappears ; a merely scenic suggestion of trees takes the place of studied foliage ; all attempt at spatial composition is abandoned and the effect of depth is secured by the contrast of bright foreground groups against a dim vapoury distance. Consequently the figures gain a curious sharpness, like that of silhouettes—they no longer move in the landscape but stand outside it, like actors on the stage in front of a drop-scene. All these modifications were directly caused by the practical exigency of translating the designs into the woven fabric.

I cannot help thinking that these conditions under which he laboured, recurring as they did through a period of fifteen years, were not without a permanent influence on Goya’s work. He was constrained to ignore background—that is to say, landscape and the problem of a succession of receding planes—to concentrate on figures in motion ; to repress detail ; to gain his effects by sudden contrast. Unquestionably there linger in his later work certain scenic and graphic qualities, an occasional flatness and insolidity of form, a tendency towards the silhouette, a disregard and impatience of accessories which led him to substitute for accurately observed trees, clouds and draperies, conventional decorative symbols. Certainly the contrast between his later works and his earlier cartoons, in particular ” La Merienda ” and ” El Baile,” heavy, sombre, substantial, intricate, seems to presuppose not merely the natural evolution of the artist’s style but a positive deflecting influence.

The effect which these pictures produce upon the spectator is also modified by another condition over which the artist had no control, that of an unduly exaggerated scale. Each tapestry was destined to fill a given wall-space in the Pardo palace, and the cartoons were required to be of corresponding dimensions. The record of a slight impression is most effective when expressed within narrow limits if it be enlarged beyond its proper proportions the result is invariably an emphasis of any inherent weakness in the design, and if this be corrected by an added balance and composition, the sharp accent of life is thereby diminished. When unhampered by external conditions, Goya painted his genre pictures on a reduced scale—witness ” The Carnival,” The Madhouse,” ” The Inquisition,” in the Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid. Moreover, in general, Goya lacked the deliberation, patience and power of prolonged and equal effort which is necessary in order to carry out successfully a work of art on a grand scale. He inherited to the full that peculiar temperament of his race which is capable of exercising its energy in sudden concentrated outbursts, but lacks the habit of even, unremitting labour. He was the creature and not the master of his moods. When he was in thrall to the spell of life his power of expression seemed almost to burst the bonds of the limitations of art ; but when the magic spell was broken his inward resources failed him, his hand became flaccid and nerveless and he hurried his work to a conclusion with an unconcealed disgust. This quick ebb and flow of interest unfitted him to embark upon a vast undertaking.

His collapse is most marked in his largest design, ” El Agosto,” which covers about seventy-five square feet of canvas. In some summer excursion into the country he had stopped to watch the midday repose of harvesters—the gaiety of the children standing in the cart and the foolish exuberance of the labourers who had slaked their thirst too well gave him his theme. He set to work on his titanic canvas with his customary enthusiasm, scarcely pausing, we may infer, to consider the composition. While the impression of the scene was still sharp he painted the group of wine-bemused harvesters and the boys busy piling the sheaves on the cart, with the directness of things seen and felt. Then his interest seems to have flagged. Before the picture was far advanced the corn harvest was over, the vintage season had arrived, and an incident for another picture, ” La Vendimia,” the grape harvest, now claimed his interest. Accordingly he filled in the vast uncovered spaces of ” El Agosto ” in the most perfunctory manner, balancing the group of harvesters with a couple of lamentable horses, ill drawn and painted hastily from memory, and improvising a sketchy and meaningless background.

In these cartoons the popular life of Madrid in the last quarter of the eighteenth century flashes before us. Probably no man of his time, with the exception of the playwright, Ramon de la Cruz, knew that life so comprehensively and intimately as Francisco Goya. He moved in all circles, from that of the Court down to that of the bull-ring. With him curiosity about life amounted to a passion. It was the mainspring of his art. And his situation was such that he could readily gratify it. He had only to put on his hat and go out into the street in order to find subjects ready composed. He takes a stroll down the Paseo de la Florida by the banks of the Manzanares and sees merry parties picnicking under the trees and dancing by the riverside, and groups of washerwomen resting and at work. He walks in the opposite direction, in the Prado, and we have an amazing presentation of that peculiarly sombre Spanish gallantry of the period—the gallants enwrapped in voluminous cloaks, at the bottom of which emerges the point of a scabbard and at the top a pair of glowering eyes, the majas flashy, provocative, relishing the element of danger in the game, the atmosphere not one of laughter and gaiety but of smouldering passion, and in it all a presentiment of the quick gleam of sword-blades and the flow of blood. He passes by the door of the inn and sees the peasants fiercely quarrelling over their game of cards. He goes to the fair and notes the fruit-sellers, the cheap crockery spread out on the ground, the fashionable ladies and gentle-men amusedly contemplating the scene, the chariots of the aristocracy with their immense back wheels like the wheels of carts, the blind guitar player in the midst of a curious crowd. He is present in the bull-ring and at games of pelota. A workman falls from a scaffolding and he watches him carried off, limp and drooping, in the arms of his mates. It is winter and he marks the crouching, huddled gesture of the peasants plodding over the snow in the face of the blast. And everywhere there are children, playing at soldiers, climbing trees, blowing bladders, watching stilt-walkers. He was a true impressionist in the broader sense of the term, one for whom the business of art was not the creation of deliberate, formal and sifted beauty, but the record of the haphazard impressions of everyday life.

We must not leave the cartoons without a word about costume. I suppose that it is from these tapestry designs that the popular notion of Goya as primarily a painter of quaint carnivalesque costume chiefly derives. Without doubt they are capable of furnishing out a complete wardrobe for a whole company of revellers at a fancy dress ball. But dress has an interest for the historian and even for the philosopher as well as for the masquerader. The unspeakable significance of clothes has already been pretty comprehensively dealt with ; and yet had Teufelsdrôckh visited the Prado he would have found abundant material for a supplementary chapter. It may be doubted whether clothes ever acquired such a deep interior significance as in Madrid during the second half of the eighteenth century. They were even responsible for a revolution. What a bitter misfortune for Carlyle that this suggestive sartorial incident escaped him !

It came about on this wise. Charles III. was one of those reforming busybody monarchs with socialistic notions—” benevolent despots,” I believe is the technical term for them—who attempted to tidy up Europe in the two or three decades before the French Revolution, as an ingenious gentleman might lay out an ornamental garden on the slopes of a sleeping volcano. In the manner of benevolent despots he regarded his faithful subjects as a pack of ill-behaved children who did not know what was good for them. They did not even know how to dress themselves with propriety. They muffled themselves up to the eyes in cloaks that reached to their heels and covered their heads with hats of outrageous brims, as though they were playing the part of villains in melodrama. As a matter of fact, the voluminous cloak did actually lend itself to a certain amount of villainy, conveniently screening a complete arsenal of lethal weapons, while the broad-brimmed sombrero, well pulled down over the eyes, assisted the villain to escape recognition. The intermeddling monarch, therefore, decreed that the cloaks must be curtailed and the sombreros clipped of their brims. Little did he guess the depth of the Madrilenos’ passionate attach-ment to these insignia of nationality, which they wore like a vesture not only for their bodies but for their very souls. Madrid rose in its wrath, massacred the royal guards and pillaged the capital. The King fled and was not allowed to return before he had given his word that no desecrating scissors should ever mutilate the sacred cloak.

Charles III., however, was obsessed by this question of costume. He pondered over the subject for twenty years and at last hit upon the bright, progressive idea of imposing upon his people a compulsory national uniform. There was to be a public competition, and a prize of a thousand reals for the designer who should devise the most suitable costume. This was a form of despotic benevolence which so individualistic a people as the Spanish could hardly be expected to appreciate. However, before Charles could enforce his project, death matured a counter-project of its own and removed the ingenious monarch from a world with such an irrational prejudice against being compulsorily reformed.

But it was something more than a mere prejudice that made the Madrileños cling so passionately to their cloaks and sombreros. The costume had a definite political significance. In the latter half of the eighteenth century Spain was a house divided against itself. On the one hand was the national party, holding fast to the old Iberian traditions, to everything that is implied by the word casticismo, the purity of the spiritual breed. On the other was the Gallicising party, watching with fervent hope the new light that was rising over the Pyrenees, the first rays of the éclaircissement, which emanated from Ferney, the home of Voltaire. This antagonism of ideas expressed itself in dress. Those who borrowed the latest French fashions of thought had their clothes cut according to the latest modes of Paris —much in the same way, I suppose, that our friend Don Román Fabra of Barcelona uttered his political creed in the bright hue of his trousers and the democratic cut of his jacket. And the more widely the enlightenment shed its rationalistic radiance over the peninsula, the more defiantly the Spanish Nationalist struck his sombrero on his head and the more sullenly obliterated himself within the folds of his traditional capa.

Both habits are abundantly illustrated in Goya’s cartoons. The French costume is worn principally by the official personages and the petimetres who emulated the incroyables of Versailles. The traditional Spanish fashion is well seen in all its sombre dignity in the glowering majos in “Un Paseo de Andalucia ” and in the cloaked spectators watching the stilt-walkers. A gayer and more pleasing variant of the national dress is that worn by the young caballero in “La Vendimia ” (The Vintage), the breeches slashed with ribbons at the knee, the short jacket turned back on the breast to display a loose cravat, the long hair caught up in a net. Pause for a moment at this picture to note the intimate serenity of the scene. Soon we shall be confronted with the bitterer and more violent manifestations of Goya’s spirit. Here it floats tranquilly in a halcyon calm. The years during which he painted these tapestry cartoons were, I am inclined to think, the happiest of his life. He was in the first blush of fame ; his bodily vigour was still undiminished—his great affliction —total loss of hearing—had not yet befallen him ; and his mind had not yet been harrowed by the horrors of the war. Life was sweet—perhaps never sweeter than on this sunny autumn afternoon when he went out into the country and saw this gay young caballero in his vineyard pleasantly reassuring himself of the success of the new season’s vintage.

After all, I believe we made a mistake in taking that preliminary saunter down the long gallery of the Prado. At all events, since I think we should in any case have had to pass through it in order to reach this basement region, we ought to have kept our eyes on the ground as we walked. To come to these cartoons with the mind crowded with memories of El Greco, Ribera, Murillo and Velasquez is to prejudice our judgment and to falsify our perspective. It is as if one should attempt to do justice to a light sparkling hock with the lingering flavour of a mellow port in one’s mouth. It would have been better if, before descending this flight of steps, we had just been to see the decorative painting on the walls of the royal palaces of Madrid and Aranjuez. Then we should have felt the full shock of the innovation of Goya’s achievement.

For consider for a moment what had been the character of the painting produced in Spain in the generation or two before Goya appeared upon the eighteenth-century scene. One recalls the names of Giordano, Van Loo, Tiepolo, Mengs — all foreigners, or, to be more precise, cosmopolitans. It was all one to Mengs whether he painted in Rome, Dresden or Madrid. Why not ?—for, so long as he had the formulas of Raphael, Correggio and Titian well in his head, he could shut his eyes to local colour. The art of the period was distinguished by its note of cosmopolitanism. It was equally at home among all the courts of Europe. It disdained the limitations of nationality. Its commerce was with ” the sublime ” ; its subjects were the heroes and divinities of a remote classical world. It spoke only in dead languages ; abhorred the vernacular. But it was only really at its ease in a court—it was an art for princes and their satellites, like grand opera. It had never heard—at all events it pretended never to have heard—of a fact of not inconsiderable importance at all times, the Common People. Or rather it invented a fictitious people, one that would not shock the fastidious taste of the Court, but amuse it with a kind of quaintness and drollery, just as the courts of an earlier age had been amused with the antics of dwarfs and half-witted buffoons. There were no peasants, half-starved, ill-clad, blackened by exposure to the sun, brutalised by a life of unending toil. There were only swains and shepherdesses, perennially young, whose sole occupation was to entertain the skipping lambs with melodies upon a rural pipe. They did not inhabit a country of miry fields and dreary skies, but a pastoral landscape where spring was, bright, rainless and perpetual. Sometimes this courtly art did indeed condescend to depict a ” boor,” but that was just for the sake of introducing a little comic relief ; for a boor, as everybody knew, was always an amusing, jovial person who passed his days swilling in the alehouse and catching buxom wenches round the waist. In a word, art was shut up in a palace, busy telling pretty fairy tales and mythical romances to ladies and gentlemen who had lost the sense of actuality ; it never even came to the windows to peep out and spy upon a world of crude and vulgar realities.

A notable apparition in this palace was Francisco Goya, the peasant’s son of Fuendetodos. But though a plebeian he was by no means a boor ; a son of the people, but not a gauche revolutionary.

The Aragonese have in their composition something of the canniness of the Scot. Goya knew what was wanted of him and he made it his business to give satisfaction. Gaiety was wanted and easy grace and superficial charm. He gave all this, and he gave something more—he gave life and reality. He painted not ribanded shepherd-esses, but Manzanares washerwomen ; not piping swains, but drunken harvesters, and these not genial and comfortable, like Velasquez’s ” Borrachos,” but sodden, mean, semi-savage. His boors at the alehouse door are not amusing ; they quarrel ‘viciously—you can hear the oaths. His lovers are not gay and gallant, as in Watteau’s pastorals, but sombre, jealous, with a hand upon the sword-hilt, as he had seen them in the Salon del Prado. And the common people are sometimes maimed by a fall from a scaffold.

Above all, Goya brought art from the clouds where it lolled with the sublime Olympians down to earth, and not merely to earth, but to Spain, to the banks of the Manzanares and the slopes of the Guadarrama. He not merely humanised it, but nationalised it. He replanted it in the native soil where it had struck roots and sucked up a vital sap in the days of Ribera and Murillo and Velasquez. I do not think that Spanish painting will ever again sell its birthright, even though there are Mengses to-day who would tempt it with a mess of cosmopolitan pottage. From those twice forty years of wandering in the wilderness that intervened between Velasquez and Goya, it has learnt by bitter experience the barrenness of an abstracted and classical art, cut adrift from nationality, without a local habitation and a name. Miguel de Unamuno only repeats the wisdom of Goya when he counsels the artists of Spain to-day to ” seek the universal in the heart of the local and the particular, in the heart of the temporal and fugitive, the eternal.”