Goya paints animals like they were enchanted beings. In his celebrated portrait “Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga,” the pets are not merely props; they are animated creatures inhabiting the interior space with a charged emotional reality. The fabric that adorns Don Manuel Osorio is alive with shimmering light. Across the taffeta elements, Goya’s brush seems to touch the canvas surface like a translucent vapor. Nonetheless, the crux of Don Manuel’s portrait is the subliminal plot staged in the sidelines by his menagerie. Cartoon-like cats, a precocious magpie and a cage of finches interact in a socialized exchange transforming the child’s form into the prop. Looming out of the darkness are the eyes of three cats, we can assume these are well kept pets and not feral creatures from the streets. From within the shadows beams their intelligent and concentrated gaze upon the clever magpie that is lifting Goya’s business card in its beak.
Don Manuel’s pets create an illusive narrative, one that sets the stage for Goya’s future projects as social commentator and archivist of brutality. This picture is the pinnacle of Goya’s early portraiture and foreshadows a similar staging in “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” from Los Caprichos. Although much historical speculation has been written on Christian iconography in connection to a symbolic interpretation of these pets, I find this theory irrelevant and unsubstantiated. Instead, the essence of Goya’s poetic genius is hiding attentively like the cats. The artist watches and records the realities of life he cannot divulge in the commissions. Goya is the one caught amidst the politics of court world. This inter-species drama between magpie and felines is the dominant storyline, their cartoon antics embellishing the luscious portrait. The temporality of this momentary drama assumes an existential commentary on existence in time while it evidences the inherent tension between the peaceful and demonic nature of reality.
My interest in Goya began when I was a young art student in Baltimore and I first came upon a book of the plates for “Los Caprichos.” Entranced, my love affair with his work continued in New York when I moved here in 1977. Poring over the plates, I found the extremes of human suffering and cruelty succinctly expressed in his line and tone. Many of Goya’s paintings, magnificent in their virtuous formal qualities, especially in terms of the fabrics that radiate with light, did not hold interest for me, a young modernist more interested in finding inspiration in Rauschenberg or Zen painting. The exception came with Goya’s animals; they had a truer ring and I could feel a connection to his psyche and philosophy of life. This work was by far the pinnacle of that discovery of Goya’s interest in animals. Later in 1872, animals and their emotions would become the focus of naturalist Charles Darwin. Goya’s artistic sensibility evidenced the enduring importance of animals as active social members of family life. This was especially true for isolated court children. During the Enlightenment period, pets were highly regarded as a way to encourage a connection to nature. In Europe finches were taught tricks and kept for their singing abilities.
At the time of this painting, circa 1786, Goya writes “I have established myself in an enviable way.” He finally is promoted to Court Painter when his patrons, Crown Prince Carlos and Princess Maria Luisa, assume the throne of Spain. Previous profitable years painting cartoons for tapestries for the nobility led him to develop his knack and intellectual passion for ingeniously portraying high and low life spectacles of both the rich and poor.
By the time of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the Spanish Resistance War, Goya is left fully deaf, presumably from lead poisoning. In another twist of ill fate, the Altamira family becomes almost bankrupt and Goya is left without court work. From that point on, he depicted with crude and raw abandon the world of the depraved, not the privileged. Luckily, the artist wisely invested in the Bank of Spain in the 1780’s so he is comfortably left to focus attention on the world around him – the myriad of characters that dominate the streets – beggars, gravediggers, torturers, feral cats and the starving. Realism in the form of his most celebrated prints “Disasters of War” and ‘Los Caprichos” established him as the greatest artist of war. This painting of Don Manuel de Osorio, with its full cast of animal characters, foreshadowed this genius.
Peggy Cyphers, Insect Icon, 2014, Acrylic, gold leaf, silkscreen, sand on canvas, 46 x 34 inches