Goya's Self-portrait. Do we ever know the artist?

In the 1790’s Goya, as director of painting at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid and the king’s chief painter, was concerned with artistic status and individual freedom. In Self-Portrait in the Studio (1794-95) , from the Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, Goya’s face emerges silhouetted against a stark white opaque background. Probably stone deaf by this point he is no longer surrounded by palatial luxury but alone in the semi dark, shut out from the light in his studio at number 1 Calle del Desengaño (‘Street of Disappointment’), Madrid. The street name is perhaps apt at this point in his now disappointing life. With his increasing girth, he is a small fat man with a five o’clock shadow, tousled yet wearing a costume which resembles that of a matador or a majo. He peers at the unseen viewer as if we were his mirror. Brooding and unsmiling, with his long hair tied back and an over-elaborate jacket, we wonder why he hasn’t dressed as a painter. His pot hat with its candle holders stuck in the brim, reminders of his need for light when working, suggests night time but the light is high noon. The studio seems more like a cell to escape to than a buzzing place of work. He hands us all the difficulties of the self-appraisal, the frank incredulity of an ageing face and the disappointment in his own fragility. Self-portraits are autobiographical descriptions of ‘the whole truth’, if that is possible, and Goya, standing in the dazzling light from the window, does not shy away from the self which may seem ludicrous or self-pitying. It is hard to paint inner solitude or introspection and Goya’s tense inquiring gaze challenges the viewer. The paper and the expensive silver ink stand on the table remind us that he can pour out his secret thoughts in his letters. Indeed one of his letters to Martín Zapater, dated August 1800, contains a caricature self-portrait with ‘así estoy’ (this is how I am) written beside the seated figure with exaggerated lips. By this point he had become adept at lip reading, so this may well be a wry comment on his state.

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