Of all the nineteenth-century painters, Goya is probably the one who speaks most directly to our own times because of the grief and pity with which he depicts the horrors of crime and war. He is also one of the most enigmatic of painters, especially in his late series of etchings called Los disparates and in the so-called Black Paintings which were never meant to be seen by the public. Both aspects of his work figure prominently in this excellent study.
There are various popular myths about Goya, notably concerning his famous twin portraits, La maja desnuda and La maja vestida. The model may have been Manuel Godoy's mistress Pepita, but Hughes confirms what I had always half-suspected: that the subject's head seems to have been added afterwards and is not the original one. Whoever the model was, she was not, Hughes is certain, the Duchess of Alba, as has sometimes been alleged; nor is there any evidence that Goya and the Duchess were ever lovers. Not only was Goya considerably older than the Duchess, he was also, by that time, profoundly deaf following an earlier severe illness.
Indeed, one of the things that emerge most clearly from this biography is how little we actually know about the details of Goya's life. We have no insight into his marriage—whether it was happy or not—or into any emotional involvements he may or may not have had with other women, and Hughes refrains from unfounded speculation on these matters. There is little documentary evidence for what Goya thought or felt and it is the art itself on which we must rely for this. Hughes is a thoughtful and sensitive interpreter and he is also good on the wider historical background, without which Goya's work cannot be understood.
I was particularly interested to read Hughes's explanation of Goya's fascination with witches, who appear frequently and mysteriously in his etchings. Goya was an ilustrado, a man of the Enlightenment, and did not actually believe in witchcraft, but it was part of popular consciousness and Goya's art was deeply rooted in popular Spanish culture.
Hughes is magnificently scornful of the Inquisition, already a declining force in Goya's time but not yet wholly dead. As for the Church, Goya had no time for the clergy but was not totally irreligious or an atheist. Yet he does not seem to have believed in an afterlife; he did not receive the Sacraments when he was dying and one of his etchings in Los desastres de la guerra called Nada. (El lo dirá) depicts a disintegrating corpse which, Hughes says, "testifies that nothing is there …: no Jesus, no angels, no eternal consciousness, no mercy, no redemption, no heaven, and, because it has already fixed itself on earth, no hell."
The book is well produced, with only one or two misprints in the Spanish. The plate on p.271 has been printed reversed.
28 July 2005