Wellington and Goya; Wellington and Luck

On Friday I was talking about the Wellington exhibition with a friend who’d just been to see it at the NPG. He knows vastly more about Wellington than I do – he first told me the Duke’s remark: ‘when it’s time to turn over, it’s time to turn out – and he thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, all of it, except for Goya’s portrait which he has never admired.

My friend has an Augustan sensibility, and Goya is not to his taste. But it reminded me that Goya, particularly Goya the portraitist, does polarise opinion, and sometimes people dislike his portraits for the same reason that others love them: the sense that Goya deliberately ridicules his sitters.

A while ago I was taking with a friend who is a painter about this portrait of King Charles IV and his Family, 1798 – 1800, in the Prado.


(c) Museo del Prado

He believed – as many people do – that this is a straightforwardly satirical painting, intended to make the King and his family look ridiculous – ‘as if the corner baker and his wife have won the lottery’ in the later words of Thèophile Gautier.

In fact there is no evidence that Goya did other than tell the truth. Goya paints the person in front of him, as they are right then, not the ideal of them. He is honest, incapable of either flattery or ridicule. Queen Maria Luisa was no beauty. She said it herself. But she ruled the roost and she takes centre stage. Goya’s eye for the psychology of the sitters is instinctive and uncompromising. It is part of his whole conception of portraiture. That is why he is an artistic revolutionary and a genius.

Soon we’ll have a chance to judge Goya properly as a portraitist. There will be a superb-sounding exhibition at the National Gallery, Goya: The Portraits from October 7th 2015 – January 16th 2016, bringing together fifty of his portraits. I’m looking forward to it.

I had said that looking at Goya’s Wellington you could believe this was a man who’d spent five years fighting a war. And Goya understood what war was like. Paul Cox reminds us that the Disasters of War series was begun in the same year as Wellington’s portrait. Later I was trying to think of another image to compare it with – certainly not Thomas Heaphy’s beautiful head sketches, which give no hint of being painted in the field. This famous photo by Don Cullin, Shell-shocked soldier, Hué 1968, was the only image that came to mind.


(c) Don Cullin

Goya’s portrait, particularly the red chalk drawing, shows the same ‘thousand yard stare.’ This must be the first time that had been captured in art.


(c) British Museum.

I discovered I wasn’t the first person to think this. Dan Peterson, artist and illustrator, made the comparison after visiting the British Museum’s Goya exhibition in 2012.

One final thought occurred to me after I wrote about the exhibition last week. I was surprised at Napoleon’s underestimation of Wellington – ‘the British are bad troops and Wellington is a bad general’ – given Wellington’s unbroken record of success against French armies. At the very least, Napoleon was forgetting one of his own maxims. Whenever anyone told him so-and-so was a good general, he would ask ‘Yes, but is he lucky?’ And Wellington, a master strategist and tactician whose meticulous generalship and military instinct excluded the possibility of chance at any turn, was also blessed with the most spectacular luck – an idea I’m sure he would have dismissed as ‘stuff.’

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