'Please don't ask me how we did it!' Xavier Bray on bringing together Goya's portraits.
Goya produced around 160 portraits, a third of his painted oeuvre. The majority are still in Spain, mainly in the Prado, but also in lesser-known collections such as the Bank of Spain and the Academy of Fine Arts, as well as provincial museums in Bilbao, Pamplona, Seville, Valencia, and Zaragoza. I had to be selective and make sure each portrait would document his development as an artist and also demonstrate the extent to which one could get closer to him as a person through the portraits he painted. Of the 69 that will come to London, each one--and Goya never repeated himself or fell into the trap of becoming a society portrait painter--reveals something about Goya the man and artist--be it ambition, respect, fascination, love, or friendship. Seeing them all together will, I hope, be like the leaving
party of a good colleague who has worked in an institution for a long time.
The Prado was extremely generous, lending 10 portraits which form the backbone of the exhibition. The rest came from searching for portraits that are now in public and private collections in America, England, France, Switzerland and Italy. I even learnt how to shoot pheasant and partridge--a pastime for which Goya had a passion--as a way of better understanding the artist, and as a way of convincing Spanish aristocrats to lend portraits of their ancestors. A magnificent pair of works travelling to London, for example, will be those depicting the Count and Countess of Fernan Nunez, which still belong to their heirs. But perhaps the greatest coup is the portrait of a young military officer of whom little is known, Don Valentin Bellvis de Moncada y Pizarro (c. 1795; Fig. 2). Hidden away with the heirs until now, and never before seen in public, the canvas suddenly appeared out of nowhere when it was sold to the Fondo Cultural Villar Mir in 2012, an impressive collection of Old Master paintings that hangs on the 53rd floor of a skyscraper in Madrid. The work is a masterpiece for two reasons: the way Valentin's white jacket is painted, which looks forward to Whistler's Woman in White (1862), and the fact that he looks so personable--he could be a waiter in one of Madrid's cafes.
Perhaps the most difficult portraits to borrow were those that represent sitters that are as famous as Goya. The portraits of Carlos IV and Maria Luisa, King and Queen of Spain, for example, still hang in Madrid's Royal Palace and are on the itinerary for visiting foreign dignitaries who have come to meet the present King of Spain. Fortunately, ambassadorial and monarchical relations between Britain and Spain remain strong and have allowed the pair to leave for the first time. These are key Goya works: they were painted in 1799 and mark his ascent to the position of First Court Painter to the King, a post he had longed for and that had not been filled by a Spaniard since Velazquez in the 17th century. And there is of course the Duchess of Alba, of which there are only two portraits--one that still belongs to the family, showing her dressed in white, and the other depicting her in a black mantilla (Fig. 3), which can be seen in the Hispanic Society of America, one of New York's hidden gems--full of Spanish paintings and sculptures. Technically it does not travel, but amazingly it will join Goya's friends and patrons in London. Please don't ask me how we did it!
Xavier Bray is Chief Curator at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.
'Goya: The Portraits' is at the National Gallery, London from 7 October-10 January 2016. For more information, visit www.nationalgallery.org.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 2015|
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