Updated: May 7
I saw it first in an old film on late night TV. The Naked Maja, the film was called. It starred a rebellious-looking Tony Franciosa, madly involved with a beautiful, willful duchess (la Duquesa del Alba), played by Ava Gardner no less. Ah yes, it was a moment in time, but the specific moment I focused on was in the royal chapel. There on the richly paved floor of this very private and privileged chapel stood the wealth of the Spanish court, circa 1798. In all their arrogance and silken finery, they had come to see this creation of a court painter, known for being a bit different. Odd to see that he had painted little angels, perfect, darling little cherubs, not high in the heavens but actually below the paintings that commanded the domes of the chapel. High above was painted a circular balcony where Saint Anthony stood performing his miraculous healings on the assembled crowd in which each person jostled with another to get closer to the saint. Above that was the landscape of towering trees and the heavens themselves. Magnífico! But who were these people so close to the revered saint? These were the faces of the people of the streets, beggars, vendors, vagrants, those who got splashed by mud as the carriages of the rich rushed by. Then it was noticed that not all of the vibrant eyes and poignant faces of the assembled poor and common were looking at the saint. No, some dared to look down upon their betters who stood necks craned back looking up.
Well, as you can imagine, the court painter, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, had some explaining to do. I am sure the Hollywood script writers did some good dialog. I don't remember. I do remember how I felt when I saw this painting a few years ago in Madrid in the Royal Chapel of San Antonio de la Florida. I thought it magnificent. As I looked at the faces of those people, I wanted to speak to them. What would they say? How wonderful was Goya's reversal of the social order, with the wealthy down below with their angels. Next up were the people, common folk with the saint himself. Finally came nature and the heavens above all. Goya's work always seemed dedicated to honesty, and no matter what the king and courtiers may have thought about his creation in that chapel, the skill and beauty of his painting made him First Court Painter in 1799.
When I talk about Goya and honesty, I point out one of his most famous pieces, the painting of the royal court of Charles IV, which seems startling in its honesty. Had I been a member of those assembled in said portrait, I would have been upset by his portrayal of this group of people as beady-eyed with the look of low intelligence. Of course the little prince looks lively, but in him many see the features of the Prime Minister, Manuel de Godoy, the tall man standing just behind the king. Hmmm. The Queen, however, praised Goya for capturing the beauty of her fleshy arms, all the rage in those days.
And then came the majas, La Maja Vestida (The Clothed Maja) and La Maja Desnuda (the Naked Maja). Currently the word "maja or majo" in Spanish refers to an attractive young woman or young man. In Goya's day, a maja was a flashy creature of the street with eye-catching clothing and cheeky behavior. Goya, of course, took it all one step further by painting the majas with a striking resemblance to the Duchess of Alba, with whom he had a passionate affair - at least in the film (Escandaloso!). Mistress, muse, or wealthy patron, she was fond enough of him to point to his name, written faintly in the sand at her feet in his portraits of her in white and in black (see below). Seemingly her dress in black was in the maja style of the day, which she chose to show her solidarity with the ordinary Spanish people.
These idylls in the countryside came to an end when Napoleon invaded Spain and put his brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne. Goya slipped through this occupation and continued working for Joseph Bonaparte. When the Spanish royal family returned, Goya painted one of the great masterpieces treating the outrages of war and conquest, The 3 of May, 1808, about the resistance to Napoleon's invasion. Interestingly, one of the other great masterpieces on the subject of war was by another Spaniard, Pablo Picasso, who like Goya slipped through a foreign occupation, that of Paris by the Nazis.
With this painting, El Tres de Mayo, Goya expressed a truth he could not during the French occupation. Afterwards he even stayed in the graces of the restored Spanish King, Ferdinand VII, who said, "You deserve to be garroted, but you are a great artist, so we forgive you." In Picasso's day, it was a Nazi officer who came to his studio, showing the artist a picture of his monumental comment on war, Guernica, about a small village in Spain bombed by the Axis. The officer said, "Did you do this?" Picasso answered, "No, you did." The officer threw the picture down and left, and Picasso survived the war, a great artist still.
And that is what artists do, they hold up the mirror to life and show us what we would not like to see, but what is true. Goya expressed what he saw, be it in engravings like Los Caprichos, about human folly, and Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), or in his Black Paintings, done of walls of his home in Madrid, La Quinta del Sordo (the House of the Deaf Man - not Goya, even though Goya was deaf by the time he lived there). In the end he went into exile in Bordeaux, France, where he died in 1828.
When I think of Goya, I think of standing in San Antonio de la Florida, looking at the painted ceilings with all the people there on high. What I love the most is that the Spanish people brought their great artist home and buried him there in that chapel where he used his art so skillfully to reverse the social order. Bravo!
What artist's expression of social commentary has most impressed you? Log in and tell us about it.
Images are in public domain through Wiki Commons
For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at amazon.com/author/marjorievernelle
She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on ofartandwine.com
© Marjorie Vernelle 2019