Portrait of a Woman

La Condesa de Chinchón (detail)

“She was one of a pair of twin sisters. Why choose this twin and not the other? The choice was obvious.
I felt she had an inner life….”
   Lucian Freud

Every arrival in Spain feels full of joy; every departure has been sad. My last goodbye was at the end of a November, at the end of an autumn. I reluctantly packed my suitcase to leave the warmth of the Mediterranean coast and the warmth of friends to catch a train to the cold wind of Madrid and then a long flight home to winter in California.  As he drove me to the station, my friend Paco asked me which of two cities I liked better, Valencia or the Capitol? The question was difficult to answer. It was like asking: whose music do you prefer, Bach’s or Mozart’s? Or, which ocean is your favorite, the Atlantic or the Pacific? Absurd questions. So I answered, “Spain would be a sad place without both cities.”

Later, as the train pulled away from the farms and orange groves of the coast and then rolled across the austere plains of La Mancha, it seemed that Paco’s question had an interesting answer after all: Valencia is closer to my heart than Madrid because it is the city in which my friends are still alive. Paco, Toti, Maye, Isa, Manolo, Eduardo, Diana, Elena, Antonio, Isabel, Nacho and many others are still here, sharing our lives and friendships together. In Madrid things are different. My dearest friends are no longer on this earth; they lie beneath it. Two of them, Hieronymus Bosch and Albrecht Dürer, said goodbye more than 500 years ago. Another friend, Diego Velázquez died in 1660 and yet another, Francisco Goya, left us only recently, in 1828. The bones of all of them have long ago disintegrated into powder, but the worlds they painted when they were alive still radiate into our lives from the walls of the Prado.

The principal problem for a portrait painter is to please the sitter, that is, to show her or him as they see themselves and — often more important — how they wish to be seen. A portrait is supposed to present a persona, that is, as Robert Hughes put it, “to project (a) mask — of success, of dignity, of beauty, of role– upon the world.”  So portrait artists are very skillful in depicting surfaces: clothing, hair styles, skin tones, jewelry, and symbols in order to project the sitter’s persona, the mask. In “normal” portraiture, this is all that is required. Few artists have the skill, or the interest, in penetrating below surfaces: for one thing, revealing the inner life of anyone is difficult. And very often, the sitter does not like to be revealed. Surfaces are sufficient.

Take Goya’s portrait of the The Marchioness of Santa Cruz. She’s obviously the subject of the painting, but equally important in the composition are her dress and the velvet-covered couch, which refer to her wealth, and the lyre, sacred to Apollo, which symbolizes her patronage of the arts.

La Marquesa de Santa Cruz – Oil/canvas – 49 x 82 inches

Compare her portratit to that of the Countess of Chinchón and ask yourself Lucien Freud’s question: which of these women seems to have an inner life? Yes, we all have inner lives, but which of these women interested Goya more? As Freud, an uncommonly insightful portrait painter himself answered, the choice is obvious.

La Condesa de Chinchón – Oil/canvas – 85 x 57 inches

To her family and friends she was Maria Teresa. In the social world she inhabited, her titles drift in the wake of her given name like wisps of perfume: She was Doña Maria Teresa Carolina de Borbón y Vallabriga Farnesio y Rosas, 15th Condesa de Chinchón. To solidify her titles and the fortunes of her family, she was persuaded by, among others, the Queen, Maria Luisa, to marry the Prime Minister of Spain, Manuel de Godoy.

Goya was the official court painter to three kings and his portraits of the nobility provided him with his daily bread. But he was also a fierce critic of the social order and the subject of arranged marriages was one of his frequent targets.

“What a Sacrifice,” is the title of image number 14 of his series of etchings, Los Caprichos. His comment on the image: ‘That’s how things are! The fiancé is not very attractive, but he is rich, and at the cost of the freedom of an unhappy girl, the security of a hungry family is secured. So goes the world.”

To be sure, Manuel de Godoy was more attractive than the bowlegged hunchback in Goya’s satirical print, and he was rich. Not unusually in the aristocracy, he was also a notorious philanderer, who carried on affairs with many women, including the Queen, and after his marriage to Maria Teresa, he demanded that his mistress, Pepita, also live along with his wife in his home.

What can we learn about Maria Teresa in Goya’s portrait of her? What strikes me as a painter is, in contrast to La Marquesa, the Countess does not strike a pose. Insightful portrait painters, like Goya (and Lucien Freud, and Rembrandt and Thomas Eakins) must be the most the most patient of observers. If you’re interested in the “inner life” of your subject you can’t demand that your subject pose. Poses, by definition, are unnatural. You have to wait until the sitter reveals herself. Sometimes she can’t do this because, following convention, she thinks a pose is required. So getting into the inner life of a subject requires patient observation– and trust.

La Condesa de Chinchón – detail

After how many sittings was Maria Teresa able to simply relax and sit in silence, just being herself, trusting herself and the artist, who had painted her years before when she was only four years old? She is now 21 and pregnant with a daughter who will be her only child. Apprehensively, she gathers her hands on her lap. She hesitates, glances off to her left. This is what Goya has been waiting for. Her trust and vulnerability open the door to her inner life. He paints a defenseless young woman, surrounded by darkness, without symbols, or persona, or idealization. No social mask, no titles, no harps, no velvet couches, just a young woman, trapped in a humiliating marriage, whose unhappiness he — or rather they — allow us to feel. Does Maria Teresa have an inner life? We cannot doubt it.

Of the rest of her life we know little, except that she abandoned Godoy during his downfall after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808. She survived the collapse and exile of the royal family, the defeat of the French after six years of war, and the restoration of the monarchy under the rule of the despicable Ferdinand VII.

Goya survived the disasters as well. He died in April, 1828 at the age of 82 in exile in Bordeaux. Maria Teresa died in the same year, 7 months later at the age of forty-nine. When I return to Madrid next summer, I will visit them in the Prado. Neither will have aged a single minute.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 512 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document, spreadsheet, interactive, text, archive, code, other. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop files here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.