The exquisite portrait of Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) came back on display in the picture gallery of the Bowes Museum, where it is possible to contemplate it among many other extraordinary paintings, in particular the Interior of a Prison, another remarkable painting by the artist.
The painting was selected for the spectacular exhibition held at the National Gallery, ‘Goya: The Portraits’ (7 October 2015 – 10 January 2016). This exhibition shed a fresh new light on Goya as a portrait painter, for the first time focusing exclusively on his portraits.
The artist’s prolific production has been shown through a wide range of artworks – thanks also to some impressive loans, like The Duchess of Alba (The Hispanic Society of America, New York) – that included not only official royal portraits and depictions of the Spanish aristocracy, but also more private images of his friends and family. The result was an exceptional selection of outstanding people depicted by Goya with extraordinary ability and psychological depth, showing his personal invention and his stylistic and technical development.
The portrait of Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés was displayed in the section dedicated to the group of intellectuals that belonged to the ‘Spanish Enlightenment’. This movement included members of the government office that was undertaking a political reform for a short period from 1797. Many friends of the artist were among those intellectuals, known as ‘ilustrados’, such as Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, writer and reformer, and Goya seems to engage a conversation with them through his art.
Meléndez Valdés and Goya probably met at Saragossa, where he was a judge, and this intimate portrait suggests the friendship that existed between the artist and the sitter. This relationship is confirmed also by the inscription that Goya added at the base of the portrait, ‘To Meléndez Valdés (‘from’ or ‘by’) his friend Goya 1797’.
The sitter is shown in a spontaneous and pensive expression and the viewer’s attention is captured by his melancholic eyes. The artist uses a brutal honesty in the depiction of some of the details of his friend’s appearance, such as the blood vessels on his cheeks, and the untidy and summarily powdered hair.
Dated 1797, the portrait was depicted just when Meléndez Valdés was unsuccessful in applying for the position of Public Prosecutor, and this might be the reason of his melancholic expression. However, that year he managed to get published his first edited collection of poems and he was eventually appointed Prosecutor to the Municipal authorities in Madrid.
By Bernadette Petti, Assistant Curator of Fine Art