What I’m Reading: Goya

Goya, by Robert Hughes, is a big, thick, beautifully-written account of Francisco Goya’s life, with a lavishly generous selection of many dozens of Goya’s paintings and etchings included.  I first picked it up at a book sale, amazed that such a gorgeous art book would be available for under $10.  At home, I thumbed through it a few times just to gaze at the pictures, then thought I’d see how the writing was.  Well, the writing was great, and I couldn’t stop reading it.

Robert Hughes’s biography is thorough and well-balanced.  He emphasizes Goya’s humanism, his inspiration by the contemporary ideals of the Enlightenment, with special attention paid to just how much Goya might have known about those ideals in backwards Spain, where the Inquisition still did its best to keep out foreign ideas even in the late 18th century.  His criticism of Goya’s works is superbly attentive to detail and his explanation of the context for each work is clear.

Really, it’s hard to find fault with any aspect of his writing–I suppose he might have trimmed some of his writing about the more peripheral figures in the story–a lengthy digression about Godoy, Spanish prime minister in the 1790s, for instance–but the details of Spanish history are so little known generally that even this is pretty helpful for most readers.  On the other hand, there are a few figures who receive very little attention, such as Goya’s wife, to whom he was married for 40 years.  But that is due simply to the lack of knowledge about her.  It seems Goya rarely referred to her in his letters, and other accounts of her are just not known.

One admirable aspect of the book is the way Hughes corrects various myths about Goya.  For instance, his notorious The Naked Maja (also found in a clothed version), was most certainly not the Duchess of Alba, and although he was friends with the Duchess and perhaps even smitten with her, circumstances make it extremely unlikely they ever had an affair, as is often supposed.  In fact, the painting was commissioned by Godoy, and is most likely a young mistress of his, probably with a generic face added to hide her identity.  Nevertheless, the painting caused some trouble for Goya later when an Inquisition auditor found it in a warehouse after Godoy had fled to France, and Goya had to go in and account for his salacious representation of a naked woman.

When I was in college I took a course in Spanish art history, and for my end-of-semester essay I wrote about Goya’s famous Third of May.  I was glad to encounter the painter again so many years later, and delighted to revisit him with as knowledgeable and passionate a writer as Hughes.  Any adult with an interest in art would find this book rewarding.

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