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The best books on Goya and the art of biography

recommended by Janis Tomlinson

Goya: A Portrait of the Artist by Janis Tomlinson

Goya: A Portrait of the Artist
by Janis Tomlinson


The art of Francisco de Goya reflects the social and political chaos of Spain in his day, leaving later generations to read into his prolific work—by turns formal and bizarre, official and fantastic—many often contradictory interpretations. Art historian Janis Tomlinson recommends books that disentangle Goya from the retroactive projections of later admirers and situates him in his own time. We also consider what makes for a compelling biography.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Goya: A Portrait of the Artist by Janis Tomlinson

Goya: A Portrait of the Artist
by Janis Tomlinson


Before we talk about the books you’ve selected, who was Francisco de Goya?

The Spanish artist Francisco Goya y Lucientes (more simply, Goya, and the jury is out on the use of ‘de’) lived in a period of immense social and political transformation in both Europe and the Americas. I often remind audiences in the U.S. that he was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, because we usually don’t think of them inhabiting the same world—imagine the dapper Jefferson confronting Goya’s painting, The Third of May 1808! His work was as revolutionary as his era: the etchings of Los Caprichos, his frescoes for the church of San Antonio de la Florida, The Third of May, 1808, and the so-called ‘black’ paintings are without precedent. He was extremely prolific and mastered a wide range of media—oil on canvas, tinplate and plaster, ink and chalk, fresco; he was an extraordinarily innovative printmaker, who expanded the expressive potential of etching and lithography.

An aspect that sets him apart is that, for over thirty years, from the age of 46 until his death at the age of 82, he had a dual-track career: in public fulfilling commissions from royal, aristocratic, and other well-to-do patrons for portraits, religious works, and genre scenes; more privately, exploring subjects ranging from social customs to bizarre fantasies in drawings, etchings and paintings. I should add that although he created most of these works without a commission many found their way into collections of his day.

What first attracted you to research his life?

It was never my intent, when decades ago I began my dissertation on Goya’s tapestry cartoons, to spend my career writing about him. But his work is so varied and intriguing, he was so understudied, his era was so interesting, that one thing led to another. In almost all my writing the art was the focus. But inevitably, I began to wonder about the specific context of works, and about the man who created them, and began to look for answers.

The bibliography around Goya’s work and life is extensive. Why a biography of Goya? Why now?

Ever since Laurent Matheron published the first monograph on Goya in 1858 (in French), in which he presented Goya as a revolutionary within a repressive and superstitious world, authors have crafted images of Goya. In the 19th century, the ‘Goya philosophe’ created by French writers was countered by Spanish writers who presented him as a man of the people, a Catholic, and a patriot. Jumping ahead, in Spain under Franco, Goya was celebrated in Spain as a patriot and national genius, in sharp contrast to the politically liberal champion of the oppressed and friend of the ilustrados (reform-minded thinkers) of his day, as presented by English and American authors. In fact, the basis for many of these portrayals of Goya was often the authors’ readings of his work, leading to a vicious circle that, in the end, limits our interpretation: Goya was a patriot, so he sided with Spanish forces in etching ‘Los Desastres de la Guerra’, thus proving that he was a patriot; Goya was an ilustrado, and so painted the portrait of Jovellanos, and so they were great friends.

“He became deaf at the age of 43…a solitude that spurred his creativity”

Although there might be a grain of truth behind some of these one-dimensional labels, they do no justice to the character of a complex personality as it evolved over a lifetime. Over our lives we all change; and certainly Goya—who faced the deaths of his children, deafness in mid-life and a devastating war—changed. I thought it was time to give the artist his due by considering what we know about Goya, year by year, and how we know it.

I began to compile the known documents and to contextualise them, reading newspapers of his era, which the National Library of Spain continues to digitise, reading about the lives of Goya’s contemporaries and their correspondence, as well a social and political history, ordering these, year by year. Honestly, I didn’t begin this with the idea of writing a biography, but I realised sources had to be made known, in English, if ever we were going to move beyond simplistic narratives about the artist.

You have chosen two books in our discussion of Goya illustrating different approaches to biography. Let’s discuss Catherine of Aragon first. What was it about this particular biography that was influential on your own work?

I began to think of writing a biography having convinced myself that if biographers can learn about an artist, I can learn how to write a biography! Writings about the genre only took me so far, so I began reading widely. Ellmann’s classic biography of James Joyce enthralled me, but I was looking for models that were scholarly but also accessible and wouldn’t put off the many non-specialists intrigued by Goya—those in the museum audiences to whom I have spoken over the years. I found models in the two books I’ve chosen.

Writing an engaging biography of a woman who lived five centuries ago is a tall order, masterfully accomplished by Gilles Tremlett. In fact, when I was thinking of my five books for this interview, I returned to this book, which I read some years ago, to refresh my memory and couldn’t put it down until I finished it a second time. Of course, a story of sex, politics, and betrayal has a lot going for it from the beginning!

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Tremlett reveals Catherine through her role in events and relationships with people significant not only in her life, but in the course of European history: royal births, weddings, and deaths; alliances and intrigues of leaders jockeying for power; and the ever fascinating, ever despicable, Henry VIII. The author transitions seamlessly from the stage of European politics to the minutiae of Catherine’s christening gown (“of white brocade, lined with green velvet and trimmed with gold lace”) of Dutch linens for nightshirts and sheets, and Florentine cloth for the infant’s tunics and (of course!) cummerbunds. He describes the jewels worn by her mother, Isabel: “Each ruby, diamond and every stretch of rich cloth for fur reinforced the idea of Isabel’s absolute superiority…” At a later point in the story we wonder if any of those jewels were included in the dowry of her daughter and possibly ended up in the hand of Anne Boleyn.

I am indebted to Tremlett for illustrating the advantage of short chapters, each covering a specific period of time, that break down the complexities of time, history, and cast of characters—and which are also the perfect length for those who read only so much at night before turning off the light!

Books about Goya often present his artwork as presaging many of the preoccupations of the 20th century. The second of your selected books focuses on Willem de Kooning, a giant of the last century’s painting. Like Goya, he was a true original, coming from humble beginnings to become an establishment figure in the society of his day, but who lived in an exemplary spirit of freedom. Is there a spiritual kinship between these two artists? What did you find inspiring in this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography?

My interest in how an artist’s work can be integrated into the story of a life led me to the biography of de Kooning by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. Biographies work on several levels, from the intimate to the historical, from Isabel’s jewels to a king’s decision to divorce her daughter. The story of de Kooning is one of the immigrant experience in early twentieth century America, the mid-century New York art world and its wide-ranging cast of characters from artists, to critics, to dealers and so much more. At the center is the artist, his art, his relationships.

“From the outset, Goya was convinced of his calling as an artist”

The authors command a vast amount of information (detailed in the notes and bibliography) in a story that takes us from the artist’s beginning in the slums of Rotterdam to his dementia late in life, to create a compelling narrative that illustrates what a biography of a figure of recent history might accomplish. Through the accounts of his contemporaries, de Kooning emerges not only as a great artist, but as sympathetic figure for whom we are rooting from the first pages, sharing his delight as he splurges on a $700 phonograph to listen to Stravinsky, disliking Arshile Gorky who turns his back on him, and feeling a foreboding as he takes his first drink. We become engaged, and dislike those who betray him: does anyone like Elaine de Kooning? And then, there is the painting, judiciously selected, often with a focus on a single work that culminates a chapter, embodying the challenges described in the narrative while illustrating points of arrival within de Kooning’s long journey as an artist.

I hadn’t thought of comparing Goya and de Kooning. But if I do, it seems to me that differences loom larger that similarities. From the outset, Goya was convinced of his calling as an artist, unlike de Kooning, who continually questioned himself. De Kooning was part of a larger art world, always aware of what was going on; perhaps it was to Goya’s benefit that he became deaf at the age of 43—offering him, amidst the politics of the court and its artist—a solitude that spurred his creativity.

Let’s talk about primary sources. The third of the Goya books you chose is the ‘Italian Notebook’, available to view in the Prado’s online archive (which incidentally is an exceptional resource, a gift—peruse the entire collection in high resolution!). Why is this an important document?

The ‘Italian Notebook’ came to light in the mid-1980s and was published in the early ’90s. It has generated extensive commentary, perhaps more than other Goya books, as seen in the entries on the Museo del Prado website, a wonderful illustrated source for those who don’t have the facsimile published by the Prado. But rather than talk about sources for drawings in the notebook, or identities of named individuals, I invite people to look at this book as an intimate document of Goya’s life.

First, the name ‘Italian Notebook’ is misleading, since many of the pages have sketches and notes drawn or written after Goya’s return to Spain in 1771, suggesting that this was the last of several sketchbooks he used during his two-year Italian stay. It begins traditionally enough, its early pages featuring figure sketches and Old Testament subjects. But then we get to a single page with three lists naming Italian cities, then cities that Goya qualifies as ‘the best’, and a shorter list of ‘cities only seen from outside (or from a distance)’. Although the first list is untitled, it would seem to be a list of cities visited. The lists are written with a single ink, at a single sitting (although he adds in chalk cities in southern France, possibly seen on his return to Spain). In all likelihood he wrote the list toward the end of his journey, since he appears to use the same ink on the final page of the sketchbook, where he lists works he has seen in Genoa, Venice, Parma and Loreto.

“I invite people to look at this book as an intimate document of Goya’s life”

I have a small collection of notebooks, purchased on trips, half-filled, with empty pages I sooner or later use for miscellaneous notes, so Goya’s use of this sketchbook resonates with me. He notes names of contacts who helped him on his travels; he sketches after classical and more recent sculptures; he doodles, superimposing in ink carnival masks over a pencil drawing of a putto. Back in Spain, he makes preliminary sketches for his 1773 commission at the Aula Dei, and over a decade later keeps lists of financial investments. He notes the date of his marriage, but most importantly, the names of six children born to him and to Josefa Bayeu from 1774 to 1782—none of whom survived beyond childhood. (The list was apparently written before the birth in 1784 of his sole surviving child Xavier.) This all becomes especially poignant when we flip more pages to find drawings in the hand(s) of a child or children, presumably the only surviving trace of them.

Elsewhere on Five Books we have discussed why it’s important for us to read what visual artists write. What do we learn from the fourth of the books in your selection, a collection of Goya’s letters?

I’ve asked myself if it would have been possible to write a biography of Goya without the letters he wrote to his dear friend, Martín Zapater, in Zaragoza. I don’t know that I would have undertaken it without the insights they offer into Goya’s character. A bit of background: selections from the letters were used by Zapater’s grand-nephew as a source for an 1868 biography of the artist; they have long been known, but remained unpublished until the 1982 edition by Xavier de Salas and Mercedes Águeda. This was a watershed, which lead to a great deal of new research on the many people mentioned by Goya; in the 1990s two English translations (one edited by Sarah Symmons, with translations by Philip Troutman; the other by Jaqueline Hara) were published.  In 2003, Águeda published a revised edition with extensive notes and some redacting, incorporating the research to date. The Museo del Prado continued to collect the letters and now owns about 119 of the 140+ letters known, all reproduced with commentary on the Goya en el Prado website. As with the ‘Italian Notebook’ seeing the letters reproduced—with cross-outs, silly squiggles as Goya reprimands Zapater for not writing, and drawings—brings us closer to the artist.

The relationship between these two men—the artist, convinced of his calling and genius, and the businessman and dedicated public servant—evolves as we read the correspondence, which begins following Goya’s move with his family to Madrid in 1775.

During the first five years, much of the conversation revolves around common acquaintances from Zaragoza, including Goya’s brother-in-law, the court painter Francisco Bayeu. Goya also shares good news, such as the approval he received when he presented a group of tapestry cartoons to the king and crown prince and princess. He sends Zapater sketches for his tapestry cartoons (and is annoyed when the chief court architect takes sketches he was reserving for his friend), as well as his etchings after Velázquez. When in 1780 Goya plans his return to Zaragoza to paint with his in-laws in the Basilica of El Pilar, Zapater helps with arrangements.

“After 1789, the tone changes. Now court painter, Goya is more introspective about his position”

Goya’s joy in again seeing Zapater during that visit is cut short when he is dismissed from the project. In Goya’s eyes, the fault lies entirely with Francisco Bayeu, who had in fact been quite helpful to Goya during his early years at court. Goya returns to Madrid, determined to make his way without Bayeu, and reports every step of the way to Zapater, while also conveying his frustrations and worries over his finances. So the letters from the 1780s are crucial to understanding Goya’s career, as he reports his progress in impressing influential people (most importantly, the Count of Floridablanca and the king’s brother, Don Luis) and commissions received. We trace the turn in his fortunes, as he reconciles with Bayeu, who in 1786 arranged for Goya to receive a salaried position as painter to the king. Goya’s humour returns, he is thankful for all he has received—even before becoming court painter four months after the accession of Carlos IV.

While the correspondence of this decade offers insight into Goya’s care for his mother and siblings following his father’s death in 1781, much is never said (or perhaps was said in letters lost). We hear of Goya’s wife, Josefa Bayeu, only when she has given birth or miscarried, or is working on a dress for Zapater’s aunt, and there is no mention of the deaths of six of Goya’s children, possibly victims of the smallpox epidemic of the early 1780s.

After 1789, the tone changes. Now court painter, Goya is more introspective about his position, and aware of jealousies at court that threaten his standing with the king. He returns to Zaragoza in 1790 and 1791 to visit Zapater and letters that follow those visits betray Goya’s intense feelings toward his friend, which some have interpreted as an indication of a physical relationship between the two men. I don’t find evidence for this, but to be sure Goya felt a deep love for Zapater. To me, his letters suggest that Zapater did not reciprocate—a question that might be resolved were Zapater’s letters to come to light!

In your own work, you have been keen to disentangle Goya from the retroactive projections of later admirers and to situate him in his own time. Your final selection in our discussion of Goya books, The Peninsular War, sets the stage for understanding the extraordinary political and social chaos which often finds reflection in Goya’s work. A painting like The Colossus appears like an allegory of a land in crisis.

Charles Esdaile’s book, The Peninsular War is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the tragedy that inspired Los Desastres de la Guerra. His first chapter provides a concise introduction to the state of Spain immediately before the war. Esdaile offers an analysis of all the major battles, which might try the patience of non-experts, but which contextualises episodes of the war—such as the first and second sieges of Zaragoza—well known to Goya experts. He also traces the comings and goings of Joseph Bonaparte from Madrid, showing just how tenuous his reign was and implies the contradictions of life in Madrid throughout the war, and disparities between the privileged (including Goya) and the destitute, among them refugees from war-torn villages—immortalized in Goya’s scenes inspired by the famine of Madrid. Few escaped the devastation of the war, and we might ask if the death of Goya’s wife, Josefa, in the spring of 1812, resulted from disease that inevitably accompanies famine.

And, since you raise The Colossus, I do not think the painting is by Goya. Several years ago, I was misquoted, and a writer suggested I was persuaded to this opinion by the then curator of Goya at the Museo del Prado. To set the record straight, this was not the case. Almost thirty years ago, I included it in a survey of Goya’s works, but even then thought that the slapdash figures suggested in the foreground were not by Goya, possibly a later addition by a nineteenth-century imitator.

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More recently, I included in the chronologies and lists mentioned above all firmly documented works. And even though discussion of Goya’s stylistic evolution was outside of the parameters of this book, I did ask myself, ‘Where would The Colossus fit?’ I don’t find a place for it, and I would ask those who maintain the attribution of the painting to Goya to please address this question. Another consideration: if this painting were to appear today on the art market, discovered in a private collection in Spain: would it be attributed to Goya?

One thing you draw out vividly in your book is Goya’s remarkable agility in negotiating the shifting political allegiances of war-torn Spain at the turn of the 18th century. What accounts for this nimbleness in your view?

Goya emerges as a very sociable person, and many influential people seem to have enjoyed his company. He had friends in high places, and I suggest that this explains why he was apparently never tried when, following the return of Fernando VII, he was discovered to be the painter of the ‘immoral’ Naked and Clothed Majas, then in the hands of the Inquisition.

I don’t think Goya was motivated by politics. He was compelled as an artist to create, and he was concerned throughout his life with achieving and maintaining his social standing and comfortable financial situation. From within a year of his 1775 arrival in Madrid, he sought a position at court, and eventually became first court painter (a position he shared with Mariano Maella). He maintained the position until 1808 and was reinstated to it following the 1814 return of the Spanish king, Fernando VII. He continued to earn his significant salary after settling in Bordeaux and retained it after his request for retirement was granted in 1826. Also, there is a satiric quip from 1820, discussed in the book, showing that Goya had a reputation for working for whoever paid him.

During the reign of Joseph Bonaparte (1808-1813) Goya did not hold an official salaried position at court (in contrast with Mariano Maella, who did, and consequently lost his position as first court painter upon the return of Fernando VII). We do not know that Goya was asked to be a court painter to Bonaparte—I would guess not. But if he were asked and refused, it’s difficult to read this as an act of patriotic defiance, given the many portraits he painted of Joseph’s supporters, and possibly also of Joseph himself.

We’ve been speaking about books, but Goya’s art is the main attraction. What’s your favourite work by Goya?

I need two—please? The Family of Carlos IV is one, as one of the greatest groups portraits ever painted. It doesn’t travel, so you have to see it at the Prado. And when you stand before it, please forget the ungrounded stories about this painting as a satire of the royal family—and just look. And, while in Madrid, travel across town to see the frescos at San Antonio de la Florida—a unique accomplishment that unlike so many religious paintings seems as fresh today as it did two centuries ago.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

February 17, 2021

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Janis Tomlinson

Janis Tomlinson

Janis Tomlinson’s previous books on Goya include Francisco Goya: The Tapestry Cartoons and Early Career at the Court of Madrid (1989) and Goya in the Twilight of Enlightenment (1992) and Goya: Order and Disorder, the catalogue of exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2014). The American curator for Goya: Images of Women (Museo del Prado, National Gallery of Art, 2001-2002) she has contributed to several exhibitions and lectured internationally. Her awards include a Guggenheim
Fellowship, a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and the 2021 Prose Award for Biography and autobiography from the Association of American Publishers.

Janis Tomlinson

Janis Tomlinson

Janis Tomlinson’s previous books on Goya include Francisco Goya: The Tapestry Cartoons and Early Career at the Court of Madrid (1989) and Goya in the Twilight of Enlightenment (1992) and Goya: Order and Disorder, the catalogue of exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2014). The American curator for Goya: Images of Women (Museo del Prado, National Gallery of Art, 2001-2002) she has contributed to several exhibitions and lectured internationally. Her awards include a Guggenheim
Fellowship, a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and the 2021 Prose Award for Biography and autobiography from the Association of American Publishers.