It is a complex story that Janis Tomlinson has to tell, but the armature for Goya’s life is provided by an astonishing wealth of scholarship. Though a raft of letters from Goya to his close friend Martin Zapater gives us the artist’s own voice, to the nth degree, she has brought to bear accounts of every real Goya spent, earned or was owed, every investment made, property bought and advertisement placed, every letter, will, contract, diary entry or official paperto tell this life with a meticulous attention to detail.
By truth he may have meant the infinite foibles of the human condition, but Janis Tomlinson, an authority on the artist, is interested in the truth concerning Goya’s life. Her biography is an impressive and scrupulous work of scholarship that eschews a reading of the works in favour of a meticulous account of Goya’s career and personal and professional circles, gleaned from letters, official documents and parish records. While she acknowledges that his haunting imaginings are the product of an extraordinary mind, she insists too that they are the product of his social and historical context.
Goya was by disposition anticlerical, though he happily executed countless religious images designed to satisfy Spanish Catholic worshippers. These paintings are, frankly, rather soupy. That is not what we expect from Goya, who is usually seen as more loopy than soupy: this is the man who created the ‘Black Paintings’, Los Sueños, The Disasters of War, The Third of May 1808 and Los Caprichos. Yet, as this thorough and balanced biography shows, many of these works, so often hailed as startlingly ‘modern’, do not fairly represent the art of Goya or his personality and are probably misinterpreted. During his lifetime Goya was renowned for his religious pictures and his portraits, but we mostly prefer the works of a very different kind that he made for himself.