Sometime around 1806 Goya painted the portrait of the niece of Spain’s foreign minister, one of his patrons. Goya had been painting the royal family and other nobility but now had stepped down a social notch in his paintings. But, high or low, Goya painted his subjects with such biting precision that we feel now that we know the most salient points of their personalities. The Senora’s portrait is no different in this regard.
Goya was sixty years old, a very seasoned artist. He was totally deaf from an illness a decade before. According to anecdote, he was painting the Minister when he caught sight of his sixteen-year-old niece and asked to paint her because of her beauty. Perhaps. And perhaps this was just a bid to grease a favored patron. Goya had been around the block.
Francisca, or Sabasa as she preferred, was sixteen and recently married. She holds her head high, conscious of her position, yet there is something tenative and apprehensive in her expression. Perhaps this is the insecurity of her youth. Perhaps she has glimpsed the future as Napoleon’s invading army sends her class into disarray. Even so she is proud to show her face — veils now gone out of fashion in Spain — even as she maintains a mantilla, a gesture toward past propriety and, perhaps, a refuge should events turn reactionary.
I saw this painting in the National Gallery in Washington about 1964 and it knocked me out. It isn’t that I care so much for Sabasa — I suspect we would each have been contemptuous of the other’s position in society and perhaps of each other as people — but Goya brings us together. I was trying to learn to paint then and Goya’s portraits fascinated me. He laid down a ground of raw siena or raw umber — red and yellow pigments made of dirt — then quickly and precisely stroked in the portrait using more earth colors and a few touchs of brilliant hues. The Senora’s lips are (as I recall) alizarin crimson, a transparent scarlet. That doesn’t show up well in the Net reproductions but you can still see that Goya accomplished the mouth in a few direct brushstrokes. Whip, whip, whip: there it is. Goya didn’t like to overwork his paintings; all was spontaneous. This still staggers me — the brilliant confidence to slap on the paint that way. Then, I studied the effect thinking somehow that if I understood the brushstroke, I could repeat it. I am older now than Goya was when he painted this portrait and I know better.