I was just a kid from Saragossa, in Aragon. Christian Spain at its most honest and authentic. Bad soil, tough meat, sour wine, sparse firewood and an unquestioning hatred of Jews— a hatred so pure and disinterested in fact, that it thrives to this day despite the centuries-long absence of any members of David’s race. Our national epic, El Cid, opens with its hero defrauding two rich Jews who are guilty of trusting and funding him.
I was the son of a gilder, apprenticed from age fourteen to eighteen to a local painter named José Luzan. I put in four years filling in his outlines with detail and “learning from the masters”—that is, copying prints— when I wasn’t stretching canvas or washing brushes for the maestro. Ramón Bayeu, who I grew up with, was a student there too.
Ramón’s older brother, Francisco, ten years our senior, once likewise a student of Luzan’s, won a scholarship to RAFA, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and made such a name for himself that the great Anton Mengs, the German master our king imported to paint his palaces, asked Francisco, then twenty-eight, to become his assistant. Mengs got Francisco a job designing tapestries for the royal factory and had him made a member of the aforesaid Royal Academy. When Mengs went back to Rome in 1763, Francisco took over as court painter.
Mengs was a fussy classical monster of Enlightenment art. He and his friend the art historian Winckelmann, were among those curious Germans who believed themselves to really be Ancient Greeks. Thus Mengs came by his classicism, which means a style of painting so overwrought it doesn’t look painted. Figures as smooth as marble statues and just as lifeless. He thinned and blended his pigments so you’d never see a brushstroke, laying on the glazes and evening out the image with the calm self-satisfaction of a cat licking its fur into place.
How did Mengs get here in the first place? Well, in 1759 Carlos III became king. An ugly, honest, responsible man, he loved hunting and little else. King Carlos worked hard to modernize Spain, from building roads to reforming education. He deserves all credit for making things better, though if truth be told, there wasn’t much he could have done to make them worse.
Two years after he took the throne, he brought Tiepolo, an old man of sixty-five, to live in Madrid. Tiepolo lived for another nine years, and when he died in 1770, the Baroque was really over. Mengs sailed in, all canvas unfurled, on the triumphant wave of Rococo.
Poor Tiepolo! Marooned in Madrid, a city built on a vast barren plateau, whose only natural advantage was that it was equidistant from every border and thus less likely to feel any foreign influence, especially from France. But by heaven’s providential disposition the Pyrenees protect us, like a dike, from the onslaught of science, modern hygiene and representational government with which the aforementioned land of godless enlightenment wants to inundate Europe. In addition to this bulwark which nature provides, there’s the Church. By law, the clergy are the only ones here allowed to teach, and they inoculate the Spanish people against French infection by the wholesome prophylaxis of illiteracy.
My fellow alumni from Luzan’s local painting school, the Bayeu brothers, were to be my ticket out of Saragossa. After my apprenticeship I was getting some work painting, through my obvious talent, and my no less evident willingness to work for half of what anyone else was charging. Ramón Bayeu and I both competed for the triennial RAFA prize. Ramón got the gold medal, my work didn’t even get a mention.
Ramón’s older brother, Francisco, who had been on the prize committee, suggested I go to Rome to “polish my skills.” Good advice, though in context, a little hard to take. It was my family tree that needed improvement, not my oil technique. But after a year in Italy painting classical myth and history, I was well proficient in the style Mengs approved of.
More to the point, when I got back, I married Francisco’s sister Josefa. She was twenty six, one year younger than me. I had known her and Ramón since we were children. My marriage with Josefa was, as such things tend to be, a contract. She was already twenty-six and wondering if she’d get married at all. I was twenty-seven and well tired of painting the Holy Family on the walls of small town churches. She got a husband and I got a career.
I would often say to her, “Josefa, you are my goodness and my virtue, my duty and my soul.” She would look at me in that undecipherable way women have, and say nothing.
Josefa was a good Catholic girl. I don’t know that she ever wanted to be married, or be married to me, but when she was told that this was how things would be, that’s how things were. She had one miscarriage and four children who died in infancy. Dreadful, pathetic little funerals, which we never even alluded to after they were over. What was there to say?
As a member now, by marriage, of the Bayeu clan, through the ancient and honorable Spanish tradition of nepotism, I began to get commissions for churches in towns that weren’t quite so small, but I was still bargaining hard with miserly priests over the price, per square foot of ceiling, for Italianate saints and angels.
After a few years of such holy work, which kept me closer to heaven by the height of a rickety scaffolding, my brother-in-law, Francisco got me a commission to design for the Royal Tapestry Factory at Santa Barbara. Thus, at the age of twenty-nine, I finally moved to Madrid, the capital city, where not everyone is watching and discussing your every move. Freedom at last from the stinging insects who inhabit an anthill like Saragossa! The only place you can hide from them is the grave—though it might be unduly optimistic to suppose they’d spare the dead.
The artistic director for the tapestry works was Mengs, and I persuaded him that I could produce unvarying classical figures, equipped with wreathes, wigs or halos depending on whether myths, sitters or saints were required. Under his guidance, I churned out sanitized scenes of rustic life for the cold gloomy rooms of the Escorial and Pardo palaces.
When Spain lost its holdings in the Netherlands, we’d had to learn to make our own tapestries. Thus the factory at Santa Barbara and my job came into being. As a tapestry designer, I was still technically a “wall-dog,” but at least now I was submitting my oil sketches on canvas to the factory technicians. I wasn’t up by the ceiling with a sore neck and pigment in my eyebrows. Now I had a foot in the door or the palace. I could begin to make enemies a man might be proud of.
At first I was happy to be painting sketches for the tapestries, which meant peasants instead of saints. The royal family wanted their walls decorated with merry views of the Spanish people at their folkloric pastimes. They liked to imagine they were good enlightenment monarchs who achieved their people’s wellbeing without any loss to the nation’s general picturesqueness.
So far so good, but all my oil sketches had to be translated into tapestry, which meant they had to be easy to transcribe. Here the smooth classical style of Mengs was appropriate. Sometimes my designs would be rejected as “too painterly.” I was also, at Mengs’ urging, making a series of engravings after Velazquez, whose works in the royal collection I studied very closely. Mengs, I’ll give him credit, appreciated Velazquez’ genius, and was eager to have his work seen by a wider public, and indeed by Europe. In the palace collection, they were effectively buried. But what I learned from Velazquez was exactly the opposite of what Mengs intended.
And, fatefully, my Velazquez copies were my introduction to the new arts of etching and aquatint. Engravings are scratched right onto the plates you print from. Etching and aquatint, the new methods, use acids to eat the designs into the plates wherever you scrape off a thin layer of acid-resistant “ground.”
In engraving, you can only make shadows by cross-hatching. (Rembrandt mastered this a century before my time, and for skill he hasn’t been matched.) But etching and aquatint permitted new, subtle, watercolor-like effects, depending on how you scrape, scratch, scour or wipe away the layer of “ground” so the ink can stick there and be transferred to the paper pressed against it.
Prophetically, my visual skills became acidic. My caustic designs literally bit and burned into the plates.
When Mengs went back to Rome in 1763, my brother-in-law Francisco took over as court painter. (I had applied for the post as well, but the fix, as they say, was in.) I continued to serve time making tapestry designs, doing church paintings and portraits as opportunities arose.
In 1780, when I was thirty-four, is when I applied for membership in the Royal Art Academy. The admission piece I submitted, a Crucified Christ, was without doubt the worst painting I ever made. An unbloodied, girly figure with a face of decorous pain—he looked more disappointed than anguished. Pure Mengs, pure shit. They loved it. I became a member of the academy. I could put RAFA on my visiting cards if I cared to. which was little consolation for the tapestry work drying up. The English were now fighting their American colonists, and we were allied with the French, which got us into a war with the English, so money for decorating the palaces was in short supply.
I went back to Saragossa to work on murals for the great church of the Virgin of the Pillar, along with my Bayeu in-laws. Josefa wasn’t very happy to exchange the life of the capital for rural Aragon. I tried to put a good face on things, reminded her of the quiet, the local delicacies, our families nearby. “For a woman, a home in the country is a grave,” is all she had to say. I remember her exact words, for this was one of the few times she departed from the habitual silence by which she agreed with everything I said.
I had been making progress as tapestry designer. I was working now to please the next generation of royals—Maria Luisa and the future Carlos IV, who, if they didn’t understand much about art, could at least make conversation about something besides horses and dogs. With an eye to pleasing them, I could design tapestries with a little more verve, a little more sense of the socially piquant. One of my designs showed a village wedding, with a young girl being married to a fat ugly rich man from the Americas, clearly of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, while her family looked on with venal glee. Another showed a carnival pastime, four girls tormenting a straw dummy by tossing him in a blanket they hold at each corner. The straw man was dressed like a Frenchified fashionable, with a queue and beauty spots, and the girls are grinning as girls will when they toy with a man.
Then I got that job doing frescos for the basilica of El Pilar, which brought me back to Saragossa, along with my brothers-in-law. My part was to make Mary Queen of Martyrs in the cupola. Francisco didn’t like my work, he said it was clumsy and unfinished. He was the court painter and everyone assumed he knew what he was talking about. Francisco’s judgement spread like an infection. Then the priests, the Board of Works—in fact everyone now had Francisco’s opinion on my work. Even if Francisco had been right, which he wasn’t, he should never have attacked my abilities and damaged my reputation, which is more important than any actual ability, for getting commissions.
Alright, it wasn’t entirely in keeping with his style, with the Mengs style. I showed him the oil sketch for the fresco, everyone liked it. Then when I painted the cupola itself, I gave them exactly what they saw in the sketch, and they didn’t like it.
I made the painting the same way I made the sketch, with broad, free impasto strokes, which I didn’t blend away to flat imperceptible pastel shadings.
Impasto, from the Italian impastare, “to lay on the paste.” It means applying the paint thickly so you can see the strokes of the brush or the planes left by the palate knife. In his early work, Velazquez used this sparingly, strategically, for the highlights on shiny cloth or armor, in piquant contrast to his mirrorlike realism. But as time went on he became more audacious. His short thick strokes gave the essence and didn’t dawdle with detail, he applied colors side by side without mixing, so the contrast made them brighter—I can only hint at his boundless technical invention. it’s enough to say that Velazquez is the one who really taught me how to paint. Velazquez’s father, Juan Rodriquez de Silva, lived as a secret Jew in Mexico, fasting on Yom Kippur and eating tortillas instead of bread on Passover. He fled to Madrid a century ago, one step ahead of the Mexican Inquisition, who burned his effigy in an auto de fé in Mexico City. His sanbenito, his apostate’s robe, is probably still hanging there in the cathedral. His son, Diego de Silva y Velazquez, became painter to Philip IV. He served him with palette and brush for thirty years, was rewarded with a knighthood in the Order of Santiago and an impeccable Old Christian ancestry, with sealed documents attesting him free of even a drop of Jewish or Moorish blood. The son received the robes of a Santiago Knight while the father’s sanbenito was still on display in Mexico’s great cathedral. Viva España!
As I studied Velazquez’s last paintings, the great portraits from the 1650’s, I inwardly vowed myself to the Devil, or to the God of the Jews, or to the pagan Mexican crossroads deity who sees visions in an obsidian mirror, to whatever demon or deity gifted that skill to Velazquez!
The likes of Mengs are very proud of the way they can “imitate nature.” They think that if a picture looks completely realistic, if you can’t see the brushstrokes, then that’s really painting! Mengs loved the story about the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis, who won a contest by painting a bunch of grapes so plausible that a bird swooped down from the sky to try and steal it.
Which is how you want to paint if you mean to impress bird-brains.
Art is never about literally reproducing what’s really there. Not even when you paint with utmost realism. If you want to paint a gold ring, you don’t apply gold leaf. You use yellow, with white for highlights and blend in shadows to give it shape and depth. It’s all about tricking the eye. You can see the tracks of the artist even in the most illusionistic painting if you look close enough. It’s all visual squiggles, sleight of hand that appears real from the right distance. Painting, like magic, is the art of illusion. And for the connoisseur, the interesting part is not the illusion itself, but the art that presents it.
Impasto is where the artist really shows what he can do by showing what he is doing. And that’s where you have creation not imitation. Artists like Mengs are learners all their life, repeating what nature says word for word. A real artist listens, and then gives you the gist of what nature says, with a daring bullfighter’s move, all decision and economy of motion, in a stroke that shows with abrupt full feeling what the image really means. That intuitive, though supremely practiced, expression is what so often lives in the sketch and is dead in the finished painting.
So my painting in the cupola of the Church of El Pilar was exactly like the sketch. And what difference did it make? It was up in a dome at the top of the building, so it looked perfectly finished from the distance it would be seen from. But Francisco climbed up the scaffold to see it from an inch away.
And I admit, after twenty years of having this second rate dauber tell me how to paint, I’d had enough. I was known and liked at court. So why should I paint like I was his student?
I tell this story, not because it’s important in itself. In the next few years I well eclipsed Bayeu. The point is how it played out with his sister Josefa.
Josefa was a good, responsible, stolid Spanish girl. She always did her duty. But, being a childless woman, she didn’t know how to fill her meaningless days.
In this debacle of my impasto in the cupola, Josefa, as my wife, of course took my side against her brother. She would have done that even if she thought I was wrong—which in fact she did. When I say she took my side, I mean she remained silent. She offered no reproaches, expressed no disagreement. I admired her stoicism all the more, for I knew she now imagined herself stuck in Saragossa to the end of her days, a spinster making little economies to save a peseta in her farmhouse tomb. I explained to her that I knew what I was doing. I was thirty-four, getting on in years! I had enough reputation on my own that I didn’t need to take orders from her brother, world without end, amen! When they laid me out, would I lift my coffin lid with a withered fist and ask Francisco if my limbs had been laid out properly, would he like to comment on my final composition? My de-composition?
Josefa just looked at me in silence. What did she want from me? What do women ever want? That was a thing I could never figure out. And she wouldn’t let me paint her. I tried once, but she kept making me change it and redo it over and over till I gave up. She said she didn’t want people to criticize her for how she looked, for how she dressed, for why she was in a painting in the first place. . . .
Anyway, I finally agreed to alter my work in the cathedral cupola to Francisco’s liking. The fresco finished, I was paid, and returned to Madrid, glad to shake the dust of Saragossa from my shoes—and the yoke of the Bayeus from my neck.
I am Josefa. Silent Josefa. My husband Francisco is fond of saying, “Josefa, you are my goodness and my virtue, my duty and my soul.” What I am is good-natured, well-behaved, dull and plain. You don’t have to dispute this, I know what I am, it’s not like anyone ever made a mystery of it. Long before I found the first red shameful stains on my shift, I learned that boys had games and girls had chores. Boys got in fights and girls got in the laundry. In church I would look up at the statue of St. Michael, so handsome, so girlishly beautiful with his blond ringlets and his shining roman breastplate and sword, trampling the craven little devil, and thought that one day a man like that would come to rescue me. I didn’t realize I was the fallen angel under his feet, the one with the metal collar around my neck, that a man like that would trample me.
I lived in daydreams, sweet indistinct moony worlds in which I was very important. I had girl friends, and we vowed eternal devotion and had special nicknames for one another. The years passed. I had no serious suitors. The dream life of my childhood became to me insipid, then bitter with boredom and disappointment.
Then I discovered witchcraft. Men think we women are cunning and duplicitous, but from our first instruction in the necessity of concealing from male surmise any notion of menstrual blood or its attendant distress, to the arts by which we lead the eye away from any flaw in figure or face, cunning is our first instruction. The mysteries of sex are no mysteries to us. Not only are its darkest arcana always with reach, but they lay a painful claim to our attention several days a month. Among ourselves we discuss these things with a directness that would make a man shudder. To us, it’s hilarious. We are the backstage crew of life who know how the effects are managed and how the actors really look out of costume.
And then there are spells: For learning whom one will marry, and of course, for attracting a man. For revenge on a rival, for luck buying and selling in the market, against illness, to get a baby. They can keep their Latin, there’s enough charms in Spanish to fill ten breviaries. And Basque, well that’s the secret Greek language of Spanish witchcraft, the original tongue of the witches’ gospels.
My brother Ramón once said, with more insight than he intended, “We men paint women, and you women paint yourselves.” He was right. A man can become a painter, he can do something. We have no occupation but limitlessly trivial household tasks, whose meaninglessness is shown by their repetition. If Ramón really wanted to paint the torment of Sisyphus, he shouldn’t have shown the man rolling a rock uphill: the point would have been better made by having him wash the Devil’s laundry. No matter how many times you clean it up and fold it neat, it, it comes back dirty and you start anew. Hell hath no housework like a woman’s chores.
They say the Devil finds work for idle hands. He finds more for idle minds. And what does a woman have to do with her mind? She watches and she thinks and she sees more than men who are too busy for such contemplation. Women know how things really work.
And yes, we paint ourselves. We invent ourselves. Until we’re married, our main business is to be winsome and appealing. That’s the real secret of women’s mean competition with one another. If you understand the jealousy and envy of artists—and no one’s more begrudging than a painter of another painter’s success—you understand the jealousy and envy of women.
Mine was a long wait to get married. I was already twenty-six. It was always with a sinking feeling that I read in the calendar the feast days of Agnes, Lucy , Ursula and the rest of that illustrious sisterhood—I would always think to myself, “Just like me, virgin and martyr.”
Can you imagine discussing any of these things with a man? Stinking of tobacco, talking about bullfights, fond of bitter liquor and hot spices, always ready for a fight? Very likely to take an interest in the shaded nuances of a woman’s feelings! And certain to react with disgust, denial or indignation at many facts of woman’s everyday experience.
Men know that all witches are women. How is it they fail to guess that all women are witches? You suspected as much, my poor Francisco. Well you were right, more right than you ever imagined. If I told you the truth about women and witchcraft, I would have to kill you. Which is why I am going to tell you all.
Now you look up at me. Don’t pull such a face. I’m only joking. There are, to be sure, stupid women in the world, but none are so stupid as to tell a man everything. But there’s nothing I can’t tell you now.
When the old king died, I prevailed with Carlos IV, not by my brush but by my gun. The chase was his greatest passion. In Saragossa there was no better fun to be had than hunting, so I’d been dropping birds and stopping hares with powder and ball since I was six. It’s the rare shot of mine that misses. The noblemen of Spain are good for little, but hunting is where that little lies. The day his majesty declared “This wretched dauber’s a better shot than I am!” I knew I was set for life.
So I was right to assert my independence from my brother-in-law in the affair of the church ceiling. Now I entered in earnest the world of society portraits. Admittedly, a career as a portraitist is not without its risks—no one can be entirely sure how long and how far he’ll be fashionable. But as the king’s hunting buddy . . .
I had received a commission from the prime minister, the Count of Floridablanca. I depicted him standing stiff and glittery as a Byzantine icon, amid the emblems of his accomplishments. “Make me more dignified! Make me look more resolute!” he insisted. I must have repainted his face seven times before he was satisfied. Finally, by dint of much direction and correction the excelentísimo pronounced it “very nice.” He got what he wanted, the whitewashed face of a plaster saint—in fact I left a faint halo around his head from the number of times he had me repaint his wig. On the floor are the plans for the Aragon Canal; behind him stands the chief engineer of for this never realized project. Floridablanca supposed he would irrigate the deserts of northern Spain—I was tasked with making this pictorial declaration of his intended mighty public works.
Like all the really third-rate work I did, this stiff depiction of the little lawyer from Murcia in prime ministerial dignity was a success. I was presently painting the family of Don Luis, the late king’s younger brother. Appointed Archbishop of Seville at the age of fourteen, he spent his life chasing whores, to the vast annoyance of his high-minded brother, the king. The last straw was when he married (for love) a down-at-heels countess, in shocking disregard for his Bourbon blood. As in the Floridablanca portrait, I included myself in the background, a big visual signature that even the illiterate nobility could read. I wasn’t just a craftsman any more.
Then came the portrait of the Count of Altamira, director of the National Bank. A real feat of perspective, to make this diminutive personage look less like a deformed doll in gold embroidered velvet. I painted him seated, shrinking the chair so his stubby legs wouldn’t dangle like a ten-year-old’s.
The trick with these commissions was always to make them match reality closely enough so the sitter feels “It’s really me!”—but not so accurately as to show what they really are: coarse, ordinary people peering out from under mounds of glorious laundry.
In 1785 I was introduced to Maria Pimentel, who had married Pedro de Alcantara, the Ninth Duke of Osuna. The Osunas were one of the wealthiest families in Spain, and despite that, the most intelligent. The Duke had a library of twenty-five thousand volumes, most of them books forbidden by the Inquisition. Their “afternoons” were attended by the playwright Ramon de la Cruz, who created those brief droll plays of everyday life, and Moratin, the translator of Shakespeare and Moliere. Luigi Boccherini conducted the Osunas’ private concerts of Haydn and Rossini, and of course his own compositions.
I made a portrait of the duchess in a Prussian blue dress, with lace at every border, splendid as foam at the end of a wave. She was fond of English literature and liked those lines Robert Herrick had written a hundred years before,
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes.
In my portrait, the duchess was a modern Venus born from the waves of fashion—or as close as she could get with that long intellectual face. To make it clear she was a grand figure of the Enlightenment, I ordered the grandeur of her hair with long stiff curls, Marie Antoinette style. This was no old-fashioned brooding baroque portrait with the figure emerging from shadows like a religious mystery. Here all was light, clarity, and a very French sense of elegance, befitting a woman who had read the forbidden witty essays of Voltaire.
In 1787 I did the whole family: the good natured, not terribly bright husband and their good-natured not terribly bright sons. Beside them stood the duchess and her daughters—obviously intelligent and aware of everything, brandishing fans, self-possessed little ladies.
I became a regular guest at their palace, El Capricho, just outside Madrid, in its own splendid park, offering to the view the unnatural natural landscape of a painting by Watteau or Boucher. The palace itself was a square building defined by four towers, with an open courtyard at its center. From the sides of its columned front, double staircases swerved down to a round drive that led to the gate of the estate. There was a lake, a maze, a hermitage, a temple to Bacchus, a plaza ringed by sphinxes, a massive classical fountain. She called it El Capricho because she built it to suit a caprice, a whim.
“Under the Caliphs, Spain was the Devil’s pleasure ground. From the mosques resounded their wailing liturgies in honor of an inverted and infernal trinity. Not sweet and disembodied in tone, like our Latin chants, but harsh, trilling, plaintive, like cats in heat! It makes perfect sense: ours is a heaven where they neither marry nor are given in marriage. When the Moslems try to imagine a heaven, they can’t picture anything better than this world. Theirs is a heaven of wine and sexual excess, so we shouldn’t be surprised their prayers sound like mating calls. The religion of the Jews doesn’t even have a heaven, so their prayers sound like dirges and lamentations.
“The demons whom the Moslems worshipped repaid the favor by building them canals, dikes and dams, irrigation networks that made Spain into a garden, against the clear intent of God and nature. The Jews taught the Moslems the art of engraving amulets and brewing potions. The Jews got their knowledge from Solomon, who bound the very demons, and made them yield their secrets. With such inhuman science, the Jews perfected the art of medicine, by which the proper length of life was strangely extended. Four out of five children lived to adulthood, and the average lifespan was nearly sixty!
“Now, three centuries since the Reconquista, the infernal works the demons reared for their Moslem masters are in ruins, the land has returned to its former happy barrenness in the hands of the Church and the nobility, whose true religion and true distinction place them above such mean occupations as agriculture or public works. Since Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews, the entire nobility converged upon the capitol and the court. Their vast country estates became as unimaginable and irrelevant to them as the colonies in the Americas, far-off sources of revenue requiring no personal attention. As a result, all is now decently desolate, and the tolling of church bells rolls across the arid plains, unimpeded by unnatural orange groves.
“True, in the hills, in caves, there remain a few of the old witches and sorcerers, confederate with the bandits, who remember with sadness the days when Spain was ruled by the Moor and administered by the Jew, and the land was magical from its seacoasts to the Pyrenees.
“You Señor Goya, must know this well. Your family name is Basque, your father’s people came from the Basque heartland, notoriously a haunt of sorcerers.”
This speech by the Duchess of Osuna, delivered at one of her tertulias, one of her literary afternoon gatherings, was very amusing to be sure, a satire in the manner of Quevedo’s Last Judgement. Quevedo’s book was a tour of a Hell which bore an uncanny resemblance to modern Spain.
“Bravo, your grace!” I applauded, “Your satire represents the ideas of the enlightenment as exactly the kind of deviltry conservative Catholics believe it to be.”
“Satire, Señor Goya? What satire? I am merely stating what everyone knows to be true.”
“If enlightenment taste comes from the devil, then Mengs and RAFA and the classical style must be, as I have long suspected, demonic.”
“The neoclassical painters are assuredly devils, but fairly minor ones.”
“Italy is where one goes to learn the black art of painting like Mengs, and I can’t say I’m shocked to learn that Italy belongs to Satan. But where then, geographically, is God, and where is heaven?”
“As everyone knows, God resides in Paris, which is Heaven itself.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have great difficulty finding fashionables who believe that.”
“That’s the nature of truth. Whatever everyone knows is true.”
“My art is, I fear, not sufficiently well-known to be true.”
“Of course not. Why would I pay you to represent what is merely real? If that were my aim, I wouldn’t have paintings on my walls: A window overlooking the street would do the job far better.
“Which brings us to my next project. I want a series of supernatural paintings for this room, scenes from the folklore of witches and devils, as frightening as the latest gothic novels out of England, Walpole’s Otranto or Clara Reeve’s Old English Baron.”
I’d heard about these books. Real junk, like low-rent versions of the old chivalric romances, with an extra dose of romance. Traditional literature, reheated and improved. by a few additional spoonsful of sugar.
“You want a gothic novel on your walls, ghosts and giants and magic swords?”
“Hardly. I want the witches and black magic of old Spain, and it must be absolutely believable, as if drawn from life. To which end, my dear Goya, I invite you to a party here this Friday evening, a sort of supernatural masquerade. Bring your Josefa as well. She’s a charming girl and deserves to get out a bit. Don’t concern yourself with costume, I will provide everything you need.”
At first I thought it was a terrible hangover. Noises in my ears, thunder, buzzing, ringing, I couldn’t make out what anyone was saying. Nausea and dizziness that made it impossible to walk. I lay in bed, with one foot on the floor in a futile attempt to stop the room from spinning. I had hallucinations, vivid, demonic—I kept myself from succumbing to terror by thinking how I would paint them. I had fainting spells and, most frightening of all, spells of blindness.
But it was no hangover. It went on for weeks. When the buzzing in my ears, loud and ceaseless as a mill wheel, at last stopped, all other sounds had stopped as well. I was entirely deaf.
I had gone to the party at the Duchess of Osuna’s palace. The guests were costumed in the most fanciful manner.
“I am somewhat surprised,” I ventured, “to find that no one has come on a broom or on the back of a goat.”
“We can thank the demands of fashion,” answered the duchess, “for this sad abandonment of ancient and honorable tradition. But still, imagine yourself trying to balance on a broom while wearing a hoop-skirt! Flying-ointment has similarly been brought up to date in the form of French perfume.”
It had been both difficult and easy to persuade Josefa to come. She didn’t want to be thrust into the company of sophisticated folk whose polished conversation and French phrases she couldn’t keep up with. But still, she was achingly curious about where I went and what I got up to while she waited at home. I implored her, “Josefa, you are my goodness and my virtue, my duty and my soul.” The litany of her virtues had little effect. But when I explained that the duchess would provide her with a full costume, and that she would be able to “go invisible, like a spirit,” she agreed. She who was so dutifully unheard would here be suitably unseen. What denial of self—there was never a better woman or wife.
The guests included a grave and dark-clad company of nobles, in the ruffs and doublets of another age. There were turbaned caliphs from the days when Spain was Al-Andalus, and even a few Indian priests or “powows” from the far off Indies and Americas, startling and jarring by the splendor of their feathered getups.
But most of the characters were more familiar. Priests waved devil-puppets to terrorize the ignorant. Men and women who disguised their age with face-powder, beauty marks and towering wigs, gasped in the fruitless pursuit of their juniors. Fashion victims lisped and twittered to one another in supposed French. Wise crones instructed young novice witches in the not terribly difficult art of concealing from men what men don’t want to know. The masked carnival of Madrid society, where everyone plays their debasing role, not because they’re essentially evil, but because they’re essentially bored, and can’t think of anything better to do with themselves.
The Count of Floridablanca was supervising a new hydraulic enterprise, involving the fountain at the center of the garden. While the witches drew the moon down from the skies with their awful conjurations, he and his engineers were somehow facilitating the flight of the fountain’s frightened waters in reverse up into their sculptured sources, back into the wide-mouthed dolphins and urns held by bearded river-gods, to where they could hide their terrified liquid in their underground sources.
The diminutive Count of Altamira had further shrunk, and now he ran along the top of a table spread with dainties for the celebrants. He paused to pull slices of roast beef from a serving plate like a naughty child dragging the duvet off a neatly made bed. Then he seemed to recall his dignity as the director of the National Bank, unbuttoned his breeches and crouched down to defecate an impressive pile of gold doubloons with a cry expressive at once of triumph and despair.
Though it was midnight, the sky was the perfect blue of a neo-classically painted afternoon, with an occasional perfect puffy cloud exhaled by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who sat on a Greek ruin in the distance, puffing on his pipe. Beside him sat his adoring Mengs, crowned with laurel, rapturously clasping a copy of The History of Art in Antiquity. About them, nymphs, with flesh that seemed to be sculpted from butter, assumed attitudes suggestive of mythical difficulties. The Bayeu brothers were, of course, part of this eclogue, with long ears and tails, a pair of donkeys acting as bellwethers. (For those of you unfamiliar with farm life, a bellwether is a castrated ram, a wether, with a bell around his neck, used to lead a herd of sheep.)
As this was an assembly of witches, underneath the ripe full moon, the very highest rites celebrated here mimed forth fertility. For this the Archbishop of Madrid officiated, old, august, fat as a badger. He gave me a significant look, which suggested he had in mind for me some especially prestigious commission. Then he raised his robes and squatted down. Cackling maniacally, he laid an enormous egg, such as an ostrich might produce—a monstrous infernal Easter egg, its shell densely pictured with geometric shapes and arcane letters.
The last thing I saw was Josefa, offering her stillborn children to the Devil. Marriage and childbirth had been her hell—she was only giving the Devil his due. At last I understood Josefa’s silence, and that silence overcame me in a wave. I heard a roaring as of the ocean. And when at last those waves receded, only silence remained.
“Not under torture would I reveal what I saw that night.” That’s how they put it in the gothic novels that are so popular now. Such delicacy is irrelevant. Here I have told all, and in my art I have shown all. I now see the world as it appears in the obsidian mirror the secret Jew Velazquez inherited from his father, who received it from the Aztec sorcerers. No one listens, no one looks.
While I convalesced I made six witch paintings for the Osuna salon, a thousand reales apiece. And I produced an illustrated storybook of Spanish deviltry, Los Caprichos, named for the Osuna palace El Capricho. While the Americans and the French established free republics, I made my dark cartoons of nobles and priests presiding over this great land of poverty, ignorance, bandits and prostitutes.
Of the three hundred sets of Caprichos printed, (twenty-four thousand individual impressions from the etched plates, not counting trial proofs and the imperfect pulls that had to be discarded) I sold six sets a year for four years, before I “donated” the plates and the remaining sets to the royal collection just in time to keep them, and myself, from the fires of the Inquisition.
Josefa gave birth to my son, Javier, a healthy boy who I am assured will live to bury me. I lost all use of ear in order to gain an heir, which has a poetic justice, if you can excuse so iffy a rhyme. I inherited Josefa’s silence, and received the gift of painting better than Velazquez. To surpass Velazquez technically was for me perhaps not such a stretch. The devil of it was, that I came to see more than he did. The world of the deaf is an unending pantomime, everything is said by gesture and expression. I see far more deeply now that all I can do is watch. Previously I had to go to a madhouse or a theater to see such broad and unambiguous shows of emotion, of anger, hunger, fear and hilarity. Now I see it everywhere, everything is explicit. In heaven, the souls wear white robes; on earth, they appear in all their frightful nudity.
And thus the duchess got a set of spooky paintings people still haven’t done talking about. It is as though a genie from a Moorish tale had granted all our wishes.
I realize that, by literary tradition, deals with the devil don’t end half as fairly as this. But then, this pact was made by Josefa and the Duchess of Osuna, and women are always better than men—in fact they beat the very Devil—when it comes to getting a bargain.
There are many large and luxurious books of Goya’s paintings, well worth acquiring, to be had second-hand for a pittance, since he is no longer fashionable. The finest studies of the artist are those by Robert Hughes and Eleanor A. Sayre; indeed these are the only ones I have seen that offer real insight into this profound and subtle genius. I myself have made a small series of art history videos on the witch paintings Goya made for the Duchess of Osuna, which may be viewed here.