Goya: The stories behind the portraits

Published 9 October 2015

We reveal the secrets of five paintings from the National Gallery's blockbuster show.

1. The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón, 1783-4

At 37, Goya was an established religious artist and tapestry designer but had grand visions of becoming a court painter. This portrait marks his first important commission. The seated man is Don Luis, the younger brother of King Charles III of Spain. He had been banished to the countryside and forced to marry in order to curtail his constant womanising. The bride he chose – María Teresa – was 32 years his junior and banned from taking the family name. Goya grew extremely close to them during his stay at their home, describing them as 'angels'. His affection is clearly felt in this piece; despite being an important aristocratic family he captures them in a naturalistic and informal pose.

2. The Count of Altamira, 1787

In 1785 the National Bank of San Carlos commissioned Goya to paint its directors. The count was one of the most titled aristocrats in Spain yet Goya boldly chose to opt for an overtly honest portrayal. Positioning the aristocrat with his arm hitched up on to the table beside him, Goya reveals his small stature. Luckily, the count appreciated the artist's directness and commissioned him to paint a series of pictures of his family. Goya continued to work in this style, and one of the notable features of his portraits is his disinclination to flatter.

3. Charles IV in Hunting Dress, 1799

This portrait marks what was perhaps the proudest moment in Goya's career. Following his accession to the throne, Charles IV named him as his first painter, which meant he had sole responsibility for producing portraits of the royal family. This was the artist's first picture of the new king, unusually depicting him in his casual hunting attire. In 1799 there was a pressing need to encourage devotion to the crown in the face of growing French power, and Goya skilfully judged the public mood to capture the king as a man to whom they could relate.

4. Duchess of Alba, 1797

One of Goya's most celebrated portraits, this picture portrays the Duchess of Alba – the highest-ranking woman in Spain after the queen. Known as a wilful and eccentric character, she married at 12, inherited her fortune aged 14 and was widowed by 34. Goya was living as a member of her household at the time this was painted and recalled that she turned up to one sitting and asked that he did her make-up. The inscription she points to on the sand reads ‘Solo Goya’ (‘Only Goya’) originally leading scholars to believe they were lovers, but it is now thought that it is the artist's defiant declaration of his supremacy as a portrait painter. In this painting he depicts the duchess as a maja – a lower class woman – showing she clearly had great respect for Goya to allow him to depict her in this way.

5. Mariano Goya y Goicoechea, about 1827

Goya's last documented painting is this portrait of his beloved grandson, which the artist made when he was around 81 years old. Family meant a lot to Goya: only one of his seven children survived childhood and so he treasured his remaining descendants, particularly the handsome young Mariano. Goya proudly depicts him as a gentleman of quality and wealth, ironic considering that after he died Mariano would spend all of his grandfather's fortune and live in bankruptcy for the rest of his life.

Goya: The Portraits is at the National Gallery until 10 January 2016. See it for 50% off with a National Art Pass.

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