Francisco Goya is one of those artists who seem both to transcend their time and to epitomize it. Nihil humanum a me alienum puto (I hold nothing alien from me that has to do with human nature), wrote the Roman poet Terence. This motto was lived out to the fullest degree by certain 19th century geniuses. Charles Dickens, with his insatiable interest in character and narrative, was one. In a more abstract way--music being an abstract art anyway--so was Beethoven, in his creation of equivalents for the human passions. And so, in the domain of the visual, was Goya--and there was no other painter in his time who even came near him in that respect.
Going through "Goya: Images of Women," the exhibition presented at the National Gallery of Art in Washington by the leading American Goya scholar Janis Tomlinson--it is a somewhat truncated version of a large show that was seen at the Prado in Madrid last winter--one realizes what depth and intensity Goya brought to seeing his world. The late 18th and early 19th century in Europe had portraitists who could extract gripping narratives of sympathy and experience from the individual human face and body. Delacroix, Ingres, David--it is a long and glorious list. But the most fascinating of them is surely Goya, which is all the more remarkable because he was so much alone, a man without colleagues or rivals in his culture. (He left Spain only twice--first when he was too young to matter, and then, fleeing from the squalid oppressiveness of Ferdinand VII's Bourbon regime, when he was almost too old to paint.)
Most of the Goyas that we rightly regard as his masterpieces were not seen by the public in the artist's lifetime. The Goya we know today is a rounded, far-reaching, almost encyclopedic painter, truly Shakespearean in his range; but the Goya Spaniards knew was largely a portraitist, and that is one of the most pressing reasons for the present show.
Goya and images of women? We may suppose we know something about that, having seen The Naked Maja, 1797-1800, one of the most famous woman images in art next to the Mona Lisa: the second most famous nude in Spain after Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, and the first with pubic hair. She was not, by the way, the Duchess of Alba, with whom--contrary to legend--Goya almost certainly had no sexual affair. She, like her companion piece The Clothed Maja, 1800-05, was most probably a Malagan cutie named Pepita Tudo, the mistress of Prime Minister Manuel Godoy. There are portraits of Alba in the show, though neither, alas, of the great standing figures, white and black, from the Alba collection in Madrid and the Hispanic Society in New York City. We must be content with The Duchess of Alba and "La Beata," 1795, the enchanting picture of Alba at play, her black fleece of curls cascading down her back--"There is not a hair on her head," wrote a French visitor to Madrid, "that does not excite desire"--tormenting her pious old servant, la Beata, with a red coral charm for repelling the evil eye.