Enjoy a Goya
Francisco de Goya, The Clothed Maja, c. 1805
From the London Review of Books:
Goya’s first big opportunity as an artist came in 1772, with a commission to paint the choir vault in the magnificent basilica of El Pilar in Zaragoza. Yet in 1781 his fresco of Mary, Queen of Martyrs for the basilica was rejected by the building committee – a slight he didn’t forget. To make matters worse, the church authorities appealed to his mentor and brother-in-law, Francisco Bayeu, to touch up the unhappy composition. Goya’s letters rage at the ‘shameful indignity’ with which he was treated, like ‘a mere executor and dependant’. But he couldn’t cut his ties to Zaragoza. His father, a gilder, had died impoverished and intestate, leaving him to look after his mother and the extended family. His wife, Josefa Bayeu, came from a dynasty of artists, and was accustomed to comfortable Madrid living. His family’s security preoccupied him throughout his career, though he often chafed at their demands. Faced with yet another request for help, this time from his niece, Goya erupted: ‘They are holding me hostage ... I cannot tolerate any more.’
The recipient of his disgruntlement was Martin Zapater, who would provide a vital sounding board for his friend’s frustrations and fantasies. Zapater had experienced a difficult start in Zaragoza himself, but went on to make his fortune through the buying, leasing and selling of land, becoming so central to the workings of the city that he was eventually ennobled. Despite Goya’s entreaties, Zapater never left Zaragoza, so was well placed to deal with Goya’s affairs in the town. Goya’s letters to him are rich in description and lively conversation, from court gossip, reports of his hunting prowess and the tunes of seguidillas, to frank discussions of masturbation and some remarkable doodles, including a self-portrait of Goya smoking a cigarette. The two men exchanged drawings of their penises (‘Jesus! What a testimony!’ Goya marvelled on receiving Zapater’s letter). During an illness in 1790, Goya told Zapater that ‘with your portrait before me, it seems I enjoy the sweetness of being with you oh my soulmate I didn’t believe friendship could arrive to the stage that I am now feeling.’ He even prepared a room in Madrid where he and Zapater might ‘live together and sleep (a remedy to which I resort when my sadness overwhelms me)’.
Zapater was the first collector of Goya’s work, acquiring his preparatory sketches for frescoes at the Carthusian monastery of Las Fuentes. Tomlinson is particularly good on Goya’s close, sometimes fawning, relationships with his aristocratic patrons. On meeting Infante don Luis de Borbón, the brother of King Carlos III, he boasted to Zapater: ‘His Highness offered me a thousand honours.’ His relationship with this branch of the royal family lasted for decades and gave him the opportunity to take on ambitious projects. The large group portrait of Don Luis and his family, executed in 1784, betrays the influence of Las Meninas, and similarly incorporates a self-portrait, with an immodest allusion to the story of the Corinthian Maid and the invention of painting in antiquity (a motif Goya may have derived from the Scottish artist David Allan, one of whose paintings was on board the frigate The Westmoreland when it was captured by French warships in 1779, its contents dispersed in Spain).
In 1786, Carlos III appointed Goya a court painter. The opportunities at court, however, were limited in comparison with his work elsewhere. He spent much of his early years producing cartoons for tapestries to hang in the royal apartments. The little scenes of everyday life he incorporated were novel, but he found the process a demeaning check on his invención. In 1800 he refused to co-operate with the latest tapestry commission, insisting that he was a painter of ‘histories and figures’.