Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 14, 2006
Jonathan Brown and Susan Grace Galassi Goya's Last Works Exh. cat. The Frick Collection and Yale University Press, 2006. 224 pp.; 120 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0300117671)
Frick Collection, New York, February 22–May 14, 2006
Image: Francisco de Goya. Portrait of a Lady (María Martínez de Puga?). 1824. Oil on canvas. 31 1/2 x 23 in. (80 x 58.4 cm). The Frick Collection. Photo: Richard di Liberto.

In a letter to his son Javier, written on Christmas Eve 1824, Francisco Goya mused, “Maybe I shall live to be 99 years of age, like Titian.” As it turned out, Goya would die slightly more than three years later at the age of 82, after four years of self-imposed exile in Bordeaux. But as Goya’s Last Works amply demonstrated, during these final years he created remarkable works of art in a range of genres and media that signal both continuity and change at the end of his long career.

This was the third exhibition the Frick Collection has devoted in recent years to a Spanish master. As was the case with the highly successful Velázquez in New York Collections (1999–2000) and El Greco: Themes and Variations (2001), the point of departure was a painting acquired by Henry Clay Frick: a splendid portrait inscribed “Goya, 1824” and generally thought to depict María Martínez de Puga. But in contrast to the extremely small scale of the Frick’s Velázquez and El Greco exhibitions, Goya’s Last Works examined in-depth the artist’s output from 1824 until his death in 1828, offering the museum-going public its most extensive opportunity to explore the final phase of Goya’s long career. (A 1998 exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux that also focused on Goya’s time in Bordeaux featured a greater number of objects, but the vast majority of them were by nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists inspired by Goya’s example.)

The year 1824 provided a meaningful point of departure for the exhibition, as it is not simply the date of the Frick portrait, but also a year of important transition in Goya’s life. On May 2, the artist requested a six-month leave of absence from his post as painter to the Spanish court. Although the motivation offered was a desire to improve his health by taking the curative waters across the border at Plombières, it is generally believed that Goya’s liberal political sympathies led him to seek exile in France once the repressive Ferdinand VII returned to power in 1823. Goya left Spain in June 1824, spent a few days in Bordeaux, and passed July and August in Paris before returning to Bordeaux, where he would remain—with the exception of two brief trips to Madrid—until the end of his life. In Bordeaux, Goya became part of a large community of Spanish expatriates who had emigrated either after the return of Ferdinand VII or a decade earlier, at the end of the Spanish War of Independence against Napoleon (1808–14), when their afrancesado (French-leaning) sympathies became a dangerous liability. Goya’s most intimate companions during his years in Bordeaux were the members of his own household, Leocadia Weiss and two of her children, Guillermo and Rosario, the latter often suspected to be the artist’s daughter.

The exhibition was co-curated by Jonathan Brown, Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Fine Arts at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University (who proposed the idea and also organized the Velázquez and El Greco shows), and Susan Grace Galassi, curator at the Frick. Brown and Galassi did a marvelous job of assembling works from public and private collections in North America and Spain that covered the full range of the artist’s late production: portraits in oil, ivory miniatures, black crayon drawings, and lithographs. Of the fifty-one works on view, nineteen were paintings, and nine of these were extremely small-scale works on ivory. It was, then, an exhibition of modestly sized objects that ranged in height from forty-five to just a couple of inches. But what the exhibition lacked in scale was more than made up for in visual impact. Indeed, it is hard to imagine another artist who works so “monumentally” in small scale, as seen most spectacularly in the ivory miniatures. The works were handsomely installed in the Frick’s two lower-level galleries set aside for temporary exhibitions and in a gallery adjacent to the entrance hall. On the lower level, portraiture took center stage in one gallery, while the other was devoted to drawings and ivory miniatures, the latter exhibited in a Plexiglas case in the center of the room. The small main-level gallery featured lithography and bullfighting.

In the preface to the excellent catalogue, Brown and Galassi make clear the biographical focus of the exhibition: “The sheer strength of Goya’s willpower as he faced illness, mortality, and family conflict is impressive, so impressive that we decided to create what we call a ‘biographical’ exhibition, or one that emphasizes the dynamic between personal circumstances and artistic production” (x). This focus was underscored in the gallery devoted to portraiture, which began with three self-portraits and a drawing of the artist’s son, Javier. These works formed a preamble of sorts for what followed. Two of the self-portraits were drawings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art dating from the 1780s and mid-1790s respectively. The first depicts a stylishly dressed man on the rise, while the second captures an inward intensity that began to mark the artist’s outlook after the life-threatening illness of 1792 that left him permanently deaf. The third work was the 1820 painting Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta—on loan from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and perhaps the most spectacular painting by Goya in an American collection—which commemorates Goya’s recovery from illness in 1819. Finally, the black crayon drawing of Javier, signed and dated 1824, signaled the complex family dynamics that marked Goya’s final years. In his thoughtful catalogue essay entitled “‘I Am Still Learning’: Goya’s Last Works, 1824–28,” Brown analyzes the competing interests of Goya’s “two families”: on the one hand, Leocadia and her children; and, on the other, Javier, his daughter-in-law, Gumersinda, and grandson, Mariano. The villain in this narrative is Javier, whom Brown describes as “the unworthy star of Goya’s affective universe,” and the drawing contains intimations of the alienation of father from son.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Don Tiburcio Pérez y Cuervo of 1820 nicely demonstrated the emergence of Goya’s late portrait style: informal, monochromatic, painted rapidly (often in a single sitting), and depicting a member of his intimate circle. The six portraits on view that were executed from 1824 onward share these qualities, indicating that in portraiture Goya’s late period began not at the time of the move to Bordeaux, but rather several years earlier, in the wake of the 1819 illness. The exhibition featured such key works as the 1824 portrait of Goya’s longtime friend, the poet and playwright Leandro Fernández de Moratin, and the pair depicting Joaquín María de Ferrer, one of Goya’s Paris contacts, and his wife, Manuela de Ferrer. It was interesting to have the opportunity to evaluate the Frick’s portrait in the context of these other works, given that it has never appeared in a loan exhibition (at least not since its purchase by Frick in 1914). It is to my (admittedly modernist) eye the most visually appealing of the late portraits, with the visual economy of the background and costume foreshadowing Manet.

Also present in the portraiture gallery was the so-called Milkmaid of Bordeaux (Museo del Prado, ca. 1827), a work often cited as a harbinger of Impressionism. In recent years, Goya’s authorship of this work has been questioned by Juliet Wilson-Bareau; in his catalogue entry, Brown carefully weighs the evidence for and against its attribution to Goya before concluding, cautiously, that it belongs in the artist’s oeuvre. This was the one instance in which the curators entered into the thorny debates regarding the authorship of some of Goya’s later works (including the “black” paintings), the topic of a recent seminar taught by Brown at the Institute of Fine Arts.

One regrettable absence was the portrait of Juan de Mugiro (Museo del Prado, 1827), another member of Goya’s Bordeaux circle and an important collector of his works from that period. However, this painting, which is thought to have been Goya’s final oil portrait, is discussed and illustrated in color in the catalogue, as are the Rijksmuseum’s Ramón Satué (1823) and the Barnes Collection’s Jacques Galos (1826). Galassi authored the insightful catalogue essay on portraiture, as well as the entries on individual works, which are filled with much useful information on fashion and costume.

The most exciting aspect of the exhibition was the ivory miniatures made during the winter of 1824–25, nine of which were on view, the largest number ever assembled. (In a famous letter to Ferrer, Goya states that he had executed forty such works; approximately twenty have been documented.) Measuring just a few inches, these images represent no more than two or three figures, often seen at close range with a minimum of setting. Made by covering slivers of ivory with black carbon and allowing drops of water to create accidental forms that were then elaborated with the application of watercolor and the use of a scraper, the miniatures exemplify Goya’s interest in technical experimentation during his final years. At the same time, they indicate the importance of recollection in Goya’s late work. As Brown notes in the catalogue entries, the miniatures contain important links to the artist’s previous imagery, including Los Caprichos, the album drawings, and the “black” paintings: “Images that appeared in earlier creations make a comeback, summoned by the unpredictable faculty of long-term memory that, as we grow older, displaces the remembrance of things recently past” (126). Unfortunately, the lighting in the gallery made it difficult to examine the miniatures without casting shadows across them.

On view in the same gallery as the miniatures, and constituting almost half of the works in the exhibition, was a substantial selection of black crayon drawings. After a hiatus of several years, Goya returned to making independent drawings (as opposed to preparatory ones) during his time in Bordeaux, executing the Album G and H drawings, which constitute by far the largest segment of his production while living in France. In choosing to use black crayon, Goya adopted a medium he had not used in his previous album drawings, but one that would have been better suited to a shaky hand and which may relate to his interest in lithography during these years. In the catalogue, Brown usefully divides the Bordeaux drawings into four thematic groups: “Memories of Spain,” “Scenes of Daily Life,” “Social Commentary and Satire,” and “Flights of Imagination.” Some works from the second and third groups contain allusions to contemporary life in Bordeaux, as in the street scenes depicting unusual modes of transportation, or in the drawing inscribed by Goya “Feria en Bordeaux” (Fair in Bordeaux), which shows a swarming mass of figures examining a young woman who towers above them. Galassi’s catalogue essay, entitled “Goya’s Bordeaux: A Chronicle,” offers an interesting context for such works by focusing on the history and geography of Bordeaux. She paints a vivid image of the urban fabric within which unfolded the daily life of Goya and his circle. In reading her essay, I became even more acutely aware of just how little of Bordeaux is present in the artist’s work of these years.

Finally, the small main-level gallery was dominated by Goya’s late masterpiece in lithography, the series of four bullfighting images of 1825 that came to be known as the Bulls of Bordeaux. (A fifth image intended to be part of the series, known only in a trial proof now in the collection of the Musée de Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, was not included in the exhibition, but it is illustrated in the catalogue.) Although Goya had begun to experiment with lithography in 1819, his first efforts using a transfer process yielded generally unsatisfactory results. In Bordeaux, he had the good fortune to work with Cyprien Gaulon, a master lithographer who assisted the artist in executing eight lithographs: the Bulls of Bordeaux, two picturesque genre scenes, and a portrait of Gaulon himself. An impression of the Gaulon portrait, which conveys a lively intelligence, was exhibited along with the bullfighting scenes, although I longed to see it in the portrait gallery downstairs, where one could have compared Goya’s approach to portraiture across media. Also on view with the lithographs was the small bullfighting painting now in the collection of the Getty, known as Suerte de Varas (1824). Together, these works demonstrated Goya’s continued interest in the art of the bullfight, depicted now with the visual freedom and exuberance that characterizes the artist’s late works in general.

The handsomely designed catalogue offers a highly accessible point of departure for exploring Goya’s final period, and as such it will appeal to a wide readership. The lucidly written texts are complemented by uniformly excellent illustrations of the exhibited works. Moreover, the publisher is to be commended for permitting the inclusion of numerous comparative figures—almost all of them in color and some full-page—that allow Brown and Galassi to extend their arguments beyond the confines of the exhibition. The ivory miniatures and chalk drawings are reproduced to scale in images that preserve the irregularities of edges and capture nuances of tone and surface texture; the experience of looking at these reproductions is not far removed from examining the works firsthand. Particularly noteworthy are full-page details of a good number of the drawings, allowing one to enter into the fabric of the images. The catalogue also includes an excellent chronology by Joanna Sheers and a selected bibliography compiled by Iraida Rodríguez-Negrón. Those interested in delving more deeply into the topic might wish to turn to the vast wealth of archival material on Goya, his circle, and Bordeaux contained in Jacques Fauque and Ramón Vellanueva Etcheverría’s Goya y Burdeos, 1824–28 (Zaragoza: Ediciones Oroel, 1982), as well as to the essays by an international roster of specialists published in Goya, hommages (Bordeaux: Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1998).

At the outset of his catalogue essay, Brown discusses a famous late work deemed too fragile to be loaned by the Prado: a black crayon drawing from Album G of an old bearded man emerging from a dark background, his balance seemingly dependent upon the two canes he clutches with twisted hands. In the upper right are inscribed the words “Aun aprendo” (I am still learning). Although not a literal self-portrait, it is certainly an allegorical one that is emblematic of the artist’s outlook during his last years. As I am sure Brown and Galassi would readily acknowledge, those of us interested in Goya also are still learning. Their landmark exhibition and catalogue will provide the point of departure as we continue to gain insights into the last works of this singular artist.

Andrew Schulz
Associate Professor of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Art, Department of Art History, University of Oregon