Goya and His Women

An exhibition at Washington’s National Gallery of Art takes a fresh look at one of Spain’s most celebrated artists and the women he painted

The 20th-century French novelist André Malraux proclaimed that "modern art begins" with the great Spanish artist Francisco Goya. Born in 1746 in the Spanish province of Aragon, the fiercely independent and relentlessly innovative Goya tackled a wide range of media and subject matter over the course of his half-century career. One of Spain's most celebrated artists, he served as a court painter to King Charles IV and counted such influential individuals as the renowned Duchess of Alba and royal adviser Manuel Godoy among his patrons. Though he suffered a near-fatal illness at age 47 that left him deaf, Goya went on to paint some of his most famous canvases, including his scandalous, at the time, Naked Maja.

This aspect of Goya, writes author Stanley Meisler, his portraits of women and his relations with them, has inflamed imaginations for generations. From his early tapestry designs to his compelling portraits, provocative "gentlemen's paintings," engaging genre scenes and satirical etchings and drawings, Goya portrayed the multifaceted world of women—street vendors, gypsies, noblewomen, heroines, old crones, mothers, mourners, and victims of violence—with a sensitivity and realism unparalleled in his time. Painting during the time of the French Revolution—a period when the role of women, at least in urban and upper-class society, was beginning to change—Goya was more ironic commentator than feminist advocate, and his attitude toward women was both ambivalent and complex.

"Woman is goddess and witch for Goya, sinner and saint, lover and procurer, worker and aristocrat," says Francisco Calvo Serraller of Madrid's Prado Museum. Calvo Serraller is the organizer and cocurator of a new exhibition, "Goya: Images of Women," that opened in Madrid last fall and is now on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. through June 2, 2002. Guest curated in Washington by Janis A. Tomlinson, a leading authority on Goya, the show is accompanied by an illustrated catalog from the Gallery and Yale University Press.

"There are very few artists," says Tomlinson, "who were as proficient in as many media, who were constantly experimenting with new themes and who were always driven to go beyond where they'd been before."

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