Goya paints Manuel de Godoy, arguably the most powerful man in Spain – and certainly one of the most hated. He leans back in a victory pose intended to echo the triumphal portraits of antiquity. It’s a bit awkward, though, and falls far short, surely, of convincing us that this sitter possesses genuine heroism. I could be projecting, but it looks to me like Goya just can’t bring himself to believe in the myth of his sitter’s brilliance. He looks like a hard drinking, over-eating, slightly distracted posh boy, who’s just collapsed in a rather ungraceful heap.
But that’s just it, so many of Goya’s images present us with these curious riddles regarding his true intention. We doubt his sincerity then end up chasing our own shadows. Debates have raged for centuries about his portrait of the family of King Charles IV, once described by Theophile Gautier as ‘the corner baker and his wife after they won the lottery.’ At first glance it does seem that in its faithful transcription of royal ugliness it shows not realism but open, treasonable contempt. Yet many critics sensibly challenge the view that Goya here practised distortion of his royal subjects’ faces. ‘The idea that Goya set out to satirize the patrons he depended on’ writes Robert Hughes, ‘is of course the merest nonsense’. Though we’d love Goya to be a sort of 18th century art terrorist, smashing the system from within, Hughes argues that it doesn’t seem likely he’d have got away with it and kept his job. Simply put; these people were just bloody ugly, and he painted them, as requested, to the life.
Still, despite this caveat I find myself stubbornly doubting Goya’s sincerity. OK, I grant you – he carried out no distortions or direct caricatures on his portrait subjects, but surely the fact that generations of onlookers have been compelled to ask these questions time and again tells its own story? I can’t overcome the sense that something weird and intangible is happening in these portraits.
I don’t think anyone has ever questioned whether Van Dyck secretly hated Charles I, or whether Velazquez’ Las Meninas was a veiled attack on the Spanish royals?
Goya was a republican. Whilst we have no written evidence of his disdain for the excesses of the Spanish monarchy, we know that many of his friends were radical Enlightenment figures critical of the conservatism of church and Crown in Spain. He produced artworks in favour of the Constitution proclaimed at Cadiz in 1812, and criticized the war and the subsequent Restoration of the monarchy in his Disasters of War prints.
Goya’s life story seems relevant too. In a Spain where male middle class life expectancy was 40, he lived to 82. If he’d died during that normal life range, he’d have been an unmemorable artist who produced fluffy genre scenes for the royal court. In his 40s, though. he suffered from a serious illness which temporarily derailed his career and left him stone deaf. Only then did his genius properly emerge, in a series of paintings and graphic works which are at times perplexing and at other times satirical of every aspect of the age he lived in.
Late in life he executed the Black Paintings (including ‘Saturn eating his children’) on the walls of his own house. Was he locked in an insane world of nightmares and paranoia? Or, as the Disasters of War etchings might suggest, was he merely reacting to the insanity of the cruel age he dwelt in?
Imagine being completely deaf and living in a war-zone, seeing mutilated bodies hanging from the trees, and then being asked to paint pompous overblown generals like Manuel de Godoy. Your deafness would prevent you from hearing their self-justifications or the squirming machinations of their enormous egos. A horrendous gory mime show enacted before your eyes. You’d see past all the trappings, as Goya did – and you wouldn’t even need to caricature it in order for your contempt to somehow be revealed on the canvas.
The sitter of our portrait, Godoy, was a charismatic member of the royal guard who inveigled himself into the affections of King Charles IV and his wife Maria Luisa. In the space of a few years he had become Prime Minister of Spain and, thanks to his Royal influence, the de facto dictator of the country. He was rumoured to be the Queen’s lover, and for a time forced his wife to live in the same house as his mistresses. King Charles showered him in gifts and bestowed a ludicrous list of meaningless official titles on him – foremost among them ‘Prince of the Peace’, which probably sounded ironic to the Spanish populace, as Godoy dragged Spain into several bloody wars with France, Portugal and England.
The portrait shows him at the age of 34, during his second spell as Prime Minister, just after he invaded Portugal. He is handed the note of surrender and sits down on a chair at the edge of the battlefield. Does this portrait flatter its subject? Despite the awkwardness of the pose and the unconvincing notion of Godoy as military hero, it probably still does, through gritted teeth, offer flattery of a sort. There is a terrible, dark, dick-swinging bravado to the masculine indolence of this man’s posture – crudely emphasized by the stick positioned between his legs.
Godoy never got his comeuppance, though he came very close to being lynched in the 1808 Mutiny, when the Spanish people finally had enough and marched on his residence. The King and Queen remained under his spell to the last, and abdicated their throne to spare his life. The three of them were forced into lifelong exile. Forty years later this man, once among the most powerful and feared men in Europe, finished his life as a dotty man in his eighties, living alone in a small flat in Paris.