Last December I spent two hours enjoying the National Gallery exhibition of Goya’s Portraits. Although he is maybe better know for his “black paintings”, his portraits are something very special. What is so cool about them is the way in which he painted family members and friends just as he saw them: they are not made to be formal and flattering; they are made to reveal some of the personality of the sitter, (flaws and all) in as true-to-life a manner as he could muster. Not to mention his depiction of fabric is a real tromp l’oeil. His portrayal of velvet and lace is magically realistic.
One of my favourite of his paintings is his portrait of the architect Tiburcio Perez y Cuervo, completed in 1820, oil on canvas, 102.1 x 81.3cm. I really admire his palette choice; despite the fact we are looking at a colour portrait, everything is more or less in black and white. The only warmth is to be found in his lips, cheeks and ear. It seems there is nothing frivolous about this character’s portrayal, all is methodical and rational – black and white logic. His hair is made to stand out against a slightly paler patch of background, almost like a halo. The angle of his arm almost parallels the line between his hand and head. Parallel lines which perhaps allude to his profession, like the plan of a building?
The depiction is so lifelike and original I find myself making countless assumptions about the sitter’s character (as I have done already), right down to what his voice would sound like (viz. one of those voices that is low but sonorous like a chapel bell, with just about the capacity for falsetto). He looks so calm, modest and intelligent. Maybe my ideas of his personality are completely wrong, but it’s very interesting to note the effect a facial expression has on what we think of a person, and even more interesting to see how a painting can use this effect to a purpose. Goya’s observant depiction of the slight smile (evident in his light wrinkle at the cheek) leads one to the assumption he is content, while from his restful eyebrows and absence of forehead creases we perceive him to be peaceful. The sitter appears focussed, but not to the point of any strain, indicating he is intelligent. So Goya is careful to depict the face as lifelike, but also to make sure the painting evokes the desired emotion in the onlooker.