(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Robert Hughes’s Goya is a highly personal book. In 1999, Hughes had been working on the biography for several years when he was injured in a near-fatal car crash, resulting in a five-week coma, seven months of hospitalization, a dozen operations, and intense physical suffering for Hughes. During this long illness, he hallucinated about Goya, who had somehow assumed a new importance to Hughes’s “subjective life.” Having learned to appreciate more deeply the suffering that Goya endured, Hughes observes, “It may be that the writer who does not know fear, despair, and pain cannot fully know Goya.”

Hughes acknowledges that Goya had made a major contribution to the author’s growth and education long before the car accident. Having been raised a Catholic, Hughes expresses his special gratitude to the artist for attacking the Inquisition and religious fanaticism, topics that helped “turn [him] into an ex-Catholic.” Hughes finds Goya to be important because of his firm support for the liberating ideas and values of the eighteenth century Enlightenment as well as for his aesthetic achievements. While living in a political system that recognized few human rights, here was at least one artist who was able to transcend his culture in denouncing ignorance and injustices. His artistic creations “asserted that men and women should be free from tyranny and superstition; that torture, rape, despoliation, and massacre, those perennial props of power in both the civil and the religious arena, were intolerable; and that those who condoned or employed them were not to be trusted.”

Like all scholars, Hughes writes that Goya is in many ways a very enigmatic figure. Except for his paintings, prints, and drawings, there are very few primary sources for his life. He left no memoirs, and his short autobiographical sketch for the Prado Museum gives only a few bare facts. His surviving correspondence, including 131 published letters to his lifelong friend Martín Zapater, provide limited insight into his personality and concerns. Most of the knowledge about Goya’s ideas and perceptions come from his artistic works, which are fortunately often accompanied with provocative titles, some of which take the form of descriptive sentences or phrases. Frequently, a variety of interpretations and inferences are possible. Hughes’s interpretations constitute one of the most interesting aspects of the biography. In making these interpretations, of course, Hughes takes advantage of previously published studies of Goya, especially those of art historians Janis Tomlinson, Sarah Symmons, and Fred Licht.

The value of the book is enhanced by its many beautiful reproductions. While some of them are rather small, they are consistently of a high quality, printed on a smooth and relatively thick paper. In layout, the reproductions are scattered throughout the book, conveniently located in close proximity to the particular work under discussion. Needless to say, this organization significantly adds to the pleasure of reading the book.

Hughes observes that Goya “truly was a realist, one of the first and greatest in European art.” During the artist’s lifetime, his works were almost unknown in northern Europe, and except for in Madrid, he had only a few admirers in Spain. Often called “the last Old Master and the first Modernist,” he was a prodigious artist. The corpus of his works included about seven hundred paintings, nine hundred drawings, three hundred prints, and a number of large mural projects. Hughes quotes him as saying that his three real masters were Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt, and nature. In Madrid, Goya had access to the best collections of Velázquez in the world, but he could have known Rembrandt only through prints. Hughes suggests that Goya was also influenced by the imaginative fantasy and caprice of the contemporary Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Other than his teacher, José Luzán, Hughes finds that Goya was not much influenced by his Spanish contemporaries.

Goya was slow to establish himself as an artist. After failing to gain entrance into the Spanish Royal Academy in 1766, he lived for two years in Italy, where he won a few minor contests. He was always enthusiastic about bullfighting, and he sometimes even boasted that he had practiced the skill in his youth. Hughes observes, however, that this was “a masculine boast easily made in Spain, especially when too much time has gone by for it to be verified.” Goya’s letters had almost nothing to say about his wife, Josefa Bayeu, whom he married in 1773. She gave birth to seven children, but only one, Francisco Javier, survived beyond childhood. Hughes describes him as “a flop of a son, lazy and just sort of a wastrel.” After Bayeu died in 1812, Goya’s housekeeper and mistress, Leocadia Zorilla de Weiss, described as shrewish, brought her two children into the household....

(The entire section is 1994 words.)