Mar 26th 2018

Goya in Old Age

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

 
The Third of May by Francisco de Goya
 
In 1815, 69-year old Francisco de Goya painted a small self-portrait. Today it hangs in Madrid’s majestic Prado Museum. Next to it are the two enormous paintings of the uprising of May, 1808, in which Madrid’s citizens had been slaughtered by Napoleon’s troops, that Goya had painted in 1814 for King Ferdinand VII, to be hung in Madrid’s Royal Palace. One of these, of the execution of Spanish civilians by a French firing squad, is now among the most famous images in the history of Western art.
 
So when Goya painted himself in 1815, he was at the height of his powers. Yet his portrait does not contain even a hint of smugness or self-satisfaction. He was the greatest painter alive, and he knew it, consistently sought out to paint royals and aristocrats, but his portrait does not reflect any of the trappings of his success. He looks directly at the viewer, as if caught in a momentary glance, his hair unkempt, his clothes informal and disheveled. His shirt and jacket are merely sketched in, with the bravura strokes that made him both the heir of Velazquez and the forerunner of Manet and other great modern artists who would come later in the 19th century. He appears tired, but in no way dejected or disillusioned.
 

Francisco de Goya, self-portrait

 
Goya’s candid self-portrait was not a final statement at the end of a long career, for major contributions still lay ahead. Four years later, Goya moved into a house outside Madrid. During the four years he lived there, he covered the walls with dark paintings and nightmarish visions. These murals, later transferred to canvas, are the famous Black Paintings, that now hang in their own large room in the Prado, just steps away from Goya’s self-portrait. They show macabre scenes of crazed and evil apparitions, killing each other in bloody and painful ways.
 

Francisco de Goya, Duelo a Garrotazos

The Black Paintings revisited a theme that Goya had treated intermittently earlier in his career, of the horrors of war, but they did so with a new, freer technique, that made them even more shocking, as if a simpler and cruder method could represent barbarism more directly. Goya had spent more than five decades developing the skills that made him one of art’s greatest realists, and he now used these skills to create a fantasy of a living hell on his own walls.

Francisco de Goya, Saturn Devouring One of His Children

Goya once declared that he had had three great masters – Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Nature – an impeccable artistic genealogy for an experimental painter. His goal for his art was not beauty, but reality: John Berger commented that “no artist has ever achieved greater honesty than Goya.” Throughout his long life he never ceased experimenting with new technologies – he made his first lithograph in his 70s, thus becoming one of the first artists to use the new technique – and his style never ceased to evolve. A walk through the Prado reveals that he was an excellent painter early in his life, but a great one later, as his brushwork became more effective at portraying not only the appearances but the personalities of his sitters. In the last year of his life, the 82-year old master drew an old bearded man, stooped but walking with the help of two canes, with the caption “Aun aprendo” – I’m still learning.

Francisco Goya, “Aun aprendo” sketch

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