Goya’s The Count of Cabarrús (1788)

Great portraitists have surely known, given the anonymity of Roman sculpture busts and the many later portraits of unknown people, that the identity of their sitters might sooner or later be forgotten. How relevant, then, is the sitter's biography to understanding the picture? Many art historians think little because anonymous portraits can still dazzle. Think Mona Lisa. Yet despite considerable support for that view, museums continue to explain such portraits to the public as though they are reliable biographical documents with few caveats. Goya's Portrait of The Count of Cabarrús is a case in point. It is currently in the exhibition Goya: The Portraits at London's National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and will remain there until 10 Jan. 2016.

The unconventional count, a renowned public speaker, was co-founder of Spain's first national bank and the commissioned portrait was intended to dominate the bank's boardroom. Xavier Bray remarks in the catalogue that "this strong personality with radical ideas inspired Goya to paint one of his most daring and novel portraits to date." He then notes that the count is posed like the orator he was though his figure is entirely based on Velazquez's portrait of the court jester Pablo de Vallodolid.1 And, by the way, had the count known, I doubt he would have been flattered.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Goya, The Count of Cabarrús (1788) Oil on canvas. 210 x 127cm. Collection Banco de España.

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Artists, alone at an easel, often imagine themselves as performers on stage. EPPH describes Pablo (right) as Velazquez's alter ego "painting" a picture.2 He points to the edge which implies his own "canvas" is just out-of-view. Pointing in art commonly signifies "painting". So, to "paint" his self-portrait, Pablo turns to check his features in the "mirror" which is what we see. Las Meninas is constructed in a similar way.3 Goya's Count (left), in turn, represents Goya and Velazquez-as-Pablo: one master's mind likened to another because, as they know better than anyone, their minds are like one.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Goya, The Count of Cabarrús (1788)
R: Velazquez, Pablo de Vallodolid (c.1635) Prado, Madrid.

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The idea that Cabarrús "paints" while being painted by Goya is emphasized by the glittering hilt of his sword. Its grip and guard are built from thick pigment into an almost 3-dimensional object emerging from the flat canvas. Swords in art, as explained on EPPH, commonly represent the artist's paintbrush. Its handle therefore points outwards so Goya can "hold" it to continue work on portraying the count.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of the sword hilt in Goya's The Count of Cabarrús (R) with diagram (L).

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That suggestion of continued "painting" is yet another statement on time and the ever-present "now". There is no reality to past or future; all life happens in the present. Goya's self-representation also explains why Cabarrús actually resembles Goya in a common fusion of the sitter's features with the artist's. Even his pupils are of different sizes, perhaps indicating - as we often see - an artist's dual perception: insight and out-sight. So, discount biography in future and concentrate on the painting.
 

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Goya, The Count of Cabarrús, detail
R: Goya, Self-portrait with Glasses, detail (1797-1800) Musèe Goya, Castres

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1. Goya: The Portraits (London: National Gallery) 2015, p. 59

Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 19 Nov 2015. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.