This is Goya’s first important portrait—the minister Floridablanca.
It was the beginning of Goya’s climb in society and the rise in his self-esteem. Look at the way he paints himself. It is almost embarrassing. He is the minister’s very humble servant. Goya knew he was a good painter but what was a painter? An artisan—a man on a low rung of the social ladder. He makes pretty pictures for the rich and the powerful. He had better be honored to serve a great man like Floridablanca. And he was, clearly.
Next Goya gets invited to the residence of the King’s brother outside of Madrid. Don Luis doesn’t treat him as a servant but as a friend. He takes him hunting. He seems to like Goya’s company. Don Luis asks Goya to paint portraits of his wife and family and Goya came up with this, showing himself at work but keeping a low profile.
Why did he put himself in the picture?
There was a famous precedent in Spanish painting: Velazquez. In his Meninas (The Maids of Honor) he painted his own portrait, and not a little one. Velazquez was the prince of Spanish painters. He was the king’s friend and he lived in the very palace. That was unheard-of for a painter. Yet Velazquez wanted to be a nobleman and he spent years and a lot of money trying to qualify. Just before he died, with the King’s help, he brought it off; and his son-in-law painted the cross of St. James on Velazquez’s big self-portrait to show the world that the guy wasn’t just anybody.
Goya seems always to have had Velazquez and his big Meninas self-portrait in mind. For years he felt he was a great painter but he hadn’t yet proved it, even to himself. Then his career began to resemble Velazquez’s. He too became the King’s Painter and a friend of the King. The greatest people in the realm came to his house to sit for him. Some became his friends. By the time he was given this commission to paint the royal family, he no longer doubted his own superiority, and his rich and important clients had long stopped dazzling him. Though at the back and in the dark, he stands straight up this time, with his head high, almost as though he were another member of the royal family–certainly the most lucid of the group.
These are two studies, rapid portraits he made in preparation for the big painting. They show the sure sweep of his brush, the quick and strong characterization of his subjects, his bright colors. Spaniards call their princes and princesses “Infantes”.