Goya and 19th Century Spanish Painting

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The nineteenth century painting in Spain followed a meandering course as Spanish artists undertook training in foreign capitals, especially Rome and Paris.  Romanticism with its light, color and chiaoscuro became important, as did Neo-Classicism, Realism and Impressionism.  The Academy defended grand themes and scenes out of Greek and Roman mythology, “historical painting” that combined with Realism and the Romantic interest in medieval subjects.

Casting a very long shadow over the nineteenth century was Francisco Goya.  His lengthy career and vast production covered all the phases of the artistic transitions Spain was undergoing, and he varied his subject matter as much as he did his technique.  Restless, gifted, Goya mastered portrait painting as well as he did religious or genre painting, throwing in fantasies inspired by his high-flying imagination.  Both violence and finesse meet in his work, expressed in not only his choice of theme, color or composition, but also in the very handling of his brush.

Goya was born in 1746.  As a young man he entered Academy competitions twice, unsuccessfully.  Shortly thereafter he left for Italy, then returned to Saragossa in Spain.  He painted one of his great decorative series, the murals of the Carthusian monastery of Aula Dei, then in 1775 stayed in Madrid to paint a series of cartoons for the royal tapestry factory.

He was eventually admitted to the Academy, where he painted a Crucifixion now at the Prado and came to paint a series of portaits of great figures at the court, establishing relations with the dukes of Alba and Osuna.

On the death of Charles III, his successor, Charles IV appointed the artist Painter to the Royal Chamber.  The following year Goya fell ill, and as a result became deaf.  This brought an isolation that seemed to intensify his visionary powers, applying them to external reality to produce remarkable works such as his scenes of witchcraft.  His reputation continued to grow, bringing with it an appointment to be First Chamber Painter, and he executed a series of portraits of great nobles and intellectuals.

In 1808 Napoleon’s armies invaded Spain, and Goya celebrated the deeds of the Spanish in two famous works, The Executions of La Moncloa, and The First of May.  A troubling, stunning series of etchings followed, The Disasters of War.  He then engraved a series of bullfighting scenes, and produced a body of work come to be considered representational of the artist:  satires, portraits, including the celebrated Majas on the Balcony.  This body of work also includes what many consider the greatest of his work:  the paintings made in about 1820 for his country house, The House of the Deaf Man.  Images of brutality and horror dominated by browns and blacks, these include Saturn Devouring His Sons.

He left Spain in 1824 for political reasons and worked in Paris and Bordeaux.  He made a last short visit to Madrid before returning to Bordeaux, where he passed away in 1828, but not before painting The Milkmaid of Bordeaux, a miracle of sensitivity that seems to anticipate Renoir.

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