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La Nevada (The Snowfall) December 13, 2011

Posted by Jenny in art, history.
Tags: , , , , , ,

La Nevada. Francisco Goya, 1786.

Click for zoom on any of the images.

Between 1775 and 1791, Francisco Goya served as painter to the royal court of Spain, producing portraits of the family of Charles IV and other nobility, as well as many other subjects commissioned by the Spanish crown. But Goya had a twist of genius in his soul that increasingly distanced him from conventional work.

Portrait of the Count of Floridablanca. 1783.

Even this 1783 portrait has more going on than you might think at first glance. Goya himself is shown to the left in the painting, holding a sketch for the count to see, in a trick of circular representation—a painting of the painting itself. The count gazes with fixed, glassy eyes directly at you—the viewer of the painting—while an attendant in the background looks on skeptically. So we have three distinct lines of sight in the painting that bounce back and forth like a light shown into a mirror. A book I have on Goya describes the painting as “one of Goya’s least successful portraits.” I disagree.

It’s rather striking that that painting at top, La Nevada, served as a study to become a tapestry in the El Pardo palace. It was one of a series depicting the seasons. Surely a tapestry in a royal palace on the subject of winter would show a happy scene of people frolicking in the snow. This one didn’t do that, not by a long shot.

The painting shows both misery and endurance, and it’s satisfying to look at for a lot of reasons. The five peasants are succeeding in making their way through the snow, despite the hardship—so the subject ends up being about the meeting of a challenge. The matching stride of the three men in the center suggests solidarity.

Beyond that, the composition is utterly beautiful. It’s all about curved lines—the bare bending branches of the tree to the left, echoed and reversed in the lines of the shrub in the foreground. The body of the man in front forms a crescent shape as he turns and cradles his rifle.

The butchered hog is tied in a semicircle over the mule’s back, while the reluctant dog curls his tail between his hind legs and arches his back, his forepaws planted in the snow—a wonderful pose. I believe that particular dog must have been borrowed by Gustave Courbet in his painting Poachers in the Snow, done in 1867. (It’s kind of fun that the year of Courbet’s painting is an anagram of the year of Goya’s painting.)

Poachers in the Snow. Gustave Courbet, 1867.

I don’t see this as Courbet stealing something from Goya, I see it as an transfer of ideas in which Courbet took the image of the dog and put a different spin on it. The two painters were kindred in spirit, both interested in the lives and suffering of ordinary men.

I look again at Goya’s peasant with the rifle. Flakes of powdery snow have settled on his folded arms, and he turns his head away from the wind. I can practically touch those snowflakes mounding up on the rough material of his hooded coat.

Goya would go on to explore regions of warfare and madness that had never before been treated in paintings. Later in his life, he created the “black paintings”: “Los Caprichios” and the “Disasters of War.” These images are so disturbing that I’d rather not reproduce any of them here. I leave you with his famous painting of an execution of Spanish prisoners by a detachment of French soldiers in the 1808-1812 war—a mild image by comparison.

The Third of May. 1808.