I have long been fascinated by the charismatic artist Francisco de Goya. The seeds of my fascination with this Spanish painter were sown during my studies in History of Art in Trinity College, Dublin. The firework that sent me into orbit to write the novel, The Painter’s Women: Goya in Light and Shade, was a visit to an exhibition in New York some years ago of The Disasters of War. I was stunned at the depiction, in small intimate etchings, of the savagery of man’s inhumanity to man. No glorious victories, no medalled generals; instead bodies hanging from trees, soldiers castrating a helpless man. Later, I went to the British Library in London and handled prints of the Los Caprichos and visited the Prado to see the Black Paintings.
To my mind, Goya is one of the most enigmatic and influential painters in the history of art. As Court Painter, he was well-in with the Spanish royal family and the nobility, of whom he painted many portraits, yet he lambasted what he saw as the cruelty, superstition and hypocrisy in Spanish society, as we can see in his scathingly satirical series of eighty etchings, Los Caprichos (1799). He saw nothing glorious either in war and depicted it in all its horror and brutality in a series of etchings The Disasters of War (1810-1815) and in his large painting, The Third of May, 1808. Goya painted sunny pastoral scenes, church frescoes, courting couples. The same artist also covered the walls of his country house at Quinto del Sordo with grotesque images of monsters and devils―the famous Black Paintings now in the Prado, Madrid.
So who was this Francisco de Goya? In the novel I wanted to explore behind the scenes, to discover something more of the man and of his work. What better perspective to obtain than that of the women who were closest to him in his life? As they lived with Goya at different stages of his long and turbulent career, they have lot to say about the private character of the great artist as well as being able to tell us the background to some of his most famous art works.
Thus, to get a closer view of Francisco de Goya, I chose to create, to listen to, the voices of six women who knew him very well. Four of the six women whose voices we hear in my novel lived in Spain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They are Josefa, Goya’s wife of forty years, the mother of his six children, of whom only one son, Javier, survived infancy; Leocadia, his much younger mistress who lived with him for the last sixteen years of his life until his death in 1828; Rosario, his unacknowledged young daughter who had ambitions to follow in her father’s artistic footsteps, and Gumersinda, his acerbic, grasping daughter-in law. History tells us very little beyond the names of these four women. I wanted to give them a voice, to bring them out of the shade into the light and in doing so to hopefully illuminate Goya.
The fifth voice in The Painter’s Women is that of the totally fictitious Dolores, a young peasant girl who ends up, in the novel, as one of the most legendary nudes in the history of art. The sixth woman is the famous Duchess of Alba, feisty, flighty and fabulously wealthy. She appears more than any other woman in Goya’s art. There was much juicy gossip and speculation as to the nature of their relationship. This gossip finds a possible source in Goya’s portraits of the Duchess; especially the portrait of 1797 in which the Duchess is painted in the black costume of a maja. She is standing on a sandy shore, her right hand points to an inscription in the sand, Solo Goya. On her fingers are two rings, a diamond ring bearing the name Alba and the other a gold ring inscribed Goya. Maybe there is some truth in the rumours, or maybe not. Very little in Goya’s life was transparent.
I will leave the last word to the artist himself, talking to his daughter Rosario.
“This world is a masquerade: face, clothing, voice ―everything is meant to deceive. Everyone wants to appear what he is not, each deluding the other and not even knowing himself.”