The First Goya: Steroids and Estrogen

Between the eras of Diego Velázquez and Pablo Picasso, the single most important painter in the development of Spanish art was unquestionably Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). His work is often difficult to categorize, because it changed so dramatically over his lifetime, and he straddles what we generally term the Old Master and the Romantic periods in Western Art. Now, a new exhibition will challenge many of the preconceived notions about Goya and his work, showing that although he began as card-carrying member of the academic tradition in painting, he came to reject that tradition in the development of his own idiosyncratic style.

For the next six years, the Prado Museum in Madrid will be displaying Goya’s first documented, known work to survive, rather bombastically titled “Hannibal the Conqueror Viewing Italy from the Alps for the First Time”, which is owned by a private foundation in Northern Spain. The canvas was completed in 1770-1771, when Goya was only 25 years old and studying in Italy, and submitted for an exhibition competition at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Parma. Goya hoped that his work would attract the notice of royal patrons, since at the time the House of Bourbon ruled in both Italy and Spain, but the painting did not immediately bring him the attention he sought.

Eventually, through connections with his brother-in-law, Goya managed to secure a series of commissions at the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid, where he came up with wall tapestry designs for the Spanish royal palaces which finally brought him the fame and patronage he had been seeking. It is from this point that the recognizable work of Goya emerges, with his studies of peasant life in a soft palette and haunting portraits, and which later grew darker and darker as he began to go deaf and the deprivations of the Napoleonic Wars took their toll.  Life turned Goya from a painter of genre scenes into what to our eyes still seems a tremendous and oftentimes horrifying political and social critic of man’s inhumanity to man.

None of this is foreshadowed in the painting of Hannibal, although reviews I have read suggest that there are elements of it which re-appear in some of Goya’s later, more famous work. This is wishful thinking on the part of art historians. The painting is really little more than 18th century interior decorator fluff, infused with a bizarre combination of steroids and estrogen, of the type that the rich and the noble – who had vast expanses of wall space to fill in their homes – often collected. Were this by any other painter than Goya, it would probably be moldering, ignored, alongside many others of this type on the walls of some forgotten country house.

Here we see the conquering Hannibal, carrying the muscular bulk of an older man of action, but walking as daintily and awkwardly as a toddler on tiptoe, gesturing in a decidedly unheroic fashion as he looks down into the Po River Valley. One looks at this painting and thinks, surely Hannibal would be pointing down at the Roman Republic and saying to himself, “I am going to kick your collective arse, you Roman scum” instead of gingerly appearing about to doff his helmet like a dandy. To Hannibal’s right appears a figure who is presumably meant to be a Winged Victory, holding up the general’s train of pink silk. To his left one of Hannibal’s horsemen appears about to trample the Carthaginian warlord, or perhaps wrap him up in the bizarre, giant white flag he is somehow carrying.

We can also see the goddess Cybele appearing in the sky and offering a crown of victory some distance back, though given her size and the perspective of the scene she seems to be offering it to no one. She is too far into the background to be offering it to Hannibal, unless of course she is just sitting there and waiting for him to walk backwards. And even more bizarrely, Hannibal’s men appear to be running away, for they are headed in the complete opposite direction of their leader, and have turned their backs on him. Nor is there any sign of the famous troop of elephants that we know Hannibal used to cross the Alps.

The only interesting part of the painting, for me, is the figure at the lower left, whom we see from the back. He is horned, and is supposed to be a personification of the River Po. As compared to the rest of the painting, this small section, in its shadowy, more intense color tones, and its somewhat eerie supernaturalism, seems to be more the sort of thing that a young, academic Goya might do, even though it is based on studies of male figures that go back at least as far as Michelangelo. One could almost crop this part of the picture and frame it separately for, even if not demonstrating a particularly unique or ingenious hand, it would be more interesting than the rest of the painting.

Artists are human beings, and those who live a long time will very often change the way they paint several times. They may abandon one style to pursue another, change their subject matter or their color palette, and explore some of the challenges that they perceive as facing them in the creation of art. Because of this, there is almost nothing about this first Goya painting to tell us that the man who painted it will become one of the greatest of all 19th century painters.

And yet even as we shudder or marvel over later works such as Goya’s Black Paintings, or his vicious portraits of the Spanish Royals and their courtiers, and the departure of these works from artistic conventions of the time, this early work shows us that Goya was very much an artist trained in the expectations of his age. At the beginning of his career, Goya could clearly produce the kind of “cast of thousands” paintings that the well-to-do liked to collect at that period, and he could have stayed in that mode for the rest of his career had he wanted to, as did many of his contemporaries. Goya’s decision to go out on his own, driven by his own demons but, like Beethoven, producing works of exceptional emotional resonance, was a conscious rejection of the sort of thing this painting exemplifies: a desire to please and to flatter, rather than a desire to express the self. When Goya found himself in his art, by painting the world that he was interested in, his work improved dramatically, and the art world benefited immeasurably as a result.

“Hannibal the Conqueror Viewing Italy from the Alps for the First Time”
by Francisco de Goya (1770-1771)
Selgas-Fagalde Foundation, Cudillero, Spain

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