A Goya scholar returns to her subject afresh, drawing on a wide range of documents—including letters, court papers, and a sketchbook used by Goya in the early years of his career—to challenge the popular image of the artist as an isolated figure obsessed with darkness and death, showing how Goya's gregariousness and ambition contributed to his success at court.
Tomlinson’s dryly written accounts of the Spanish court are no Iberian Wolf Hall, but they feature arresting characters ... Tomlinson addresses, with refreshing clarity, a chronic question of just how independent, not to say subversive, Goya was of the powers that employed him. She debunks a common oversimplification of Goya as a committed post-Enlightenment liberal ... We come at last to the Black Paintings (untitled by Goya), of which Tomlinson gives a bracingly investigative account ... She admirably keeps the mysteries of Goya’s character distinct from its self-serving machinations. He was unremarkably bourgeois, though salaried by royalty. (Payments kept arriving until the end of his life.) The boring parts of his story are salutary, framing the discontinuous dramas.
Tomlinson, a scholar who has been publishing on Goya for over three decades, is concerned to disentangle him from the retroactive politicizations of his admirers ... Tomlinson’s detailed account of this long and productive life is discriminating and trustworthy. Her revisionary examinations of what Goya did and why he did it seem generally plausible to me, and a bonus of the book is her close focus on the changing city life of Madrid. But the doyenne of a field of study may not be its best advocate. Where Goya first went to school; how he paid for his trip to Italy; to what extent he employed assistants; how, once deaf, he picked up signing; what Javier, his one surviving child, did with his life—these common-sense questions have, I expect, been resolved by Tomlinson to her own satisfaction so long ago that it does not occur to her now to discuss them ... Tomlinson has supplied a cool and corrective scholarly chronicle. But for the general reader’s purposes, [Robert] Hughes still serves Goya better.
One of the pleasures of Tomlinson’s book lies in encountering the unvarnished details of Goya’s life; her delineation of the artist’s remarkably flexible political allegiances is especially engrossing. But those, like myself, who have long felt an emotional connection to the cryptic melancholy of his late works, which Goya originally frescoed onto the walls of his home...will find themselves chastened by her approach. She argues that 'the romantic image of Goya, deaf and isolated' recording his inner pain for his own contemplation, is not based in fact ... It’s a reasonable enough supposition from a historian’s perspective, but those who have contemplated Goya’s giant—gnawing, with an expression of agonized helplessness, on a mutilated body—may be unconvinced.