At about the time that Goya began work on the “Caprichos” , he also began his famous but always somewhat ambiguous affair with the Duchess of Alba, probably the most vivid figure that her society produced. In 1795 she visited his studio, as we know from a reference he made to the incident in a letter. The duke died the following year , and whether or not the affair had begun during her husband’s lifetime, it continued until the duchess’s death in 1802.
The Duchess of Alba was a spirited and capricious beauty, and her liaison with Goya opens the door to all manner of romantic speculation. A sophisticate who had every handsome young man in Madrid at her feet, she chose as her lover a stocky, coarse featured commoner, almost fifty years old and stone deaf. In spite of his association with aristocrats and intellectuals, Goya had never taken on much polish and refinement. His letters are awkwardly composed and its coarse earthy tone is in part intentional as part of an exaggeration of identity.
Goys’s manner of expression, while cogent, remained solidly in the argot and delivery of a countryman; though not necessarily a peasant, but almost as a Mark Twain creation. He seems to have had no elegance. But he had force and strength of character. Whatever the details and satisfactions of the relationship, Goya and the duchess were lovers, and when they could they left Madrid for her estate in Andalusia.
Goya left an ambiguous comment on the affair in the form of a portrait of the duchess wearing two large rings, one of them bearing Goya’s name and the other her husband’s. While looking the observer straight in the eyes, she points at an inscription scratched in the earth at her feet: “Solo Goya”, which mean Goya only, presumably referring ot the death of the duke. The inscription was revealed only much later through a cleaning and restoration of the work, and there are questions as to whether it was part of the original scheme and when and why it was painted out. In odd ways Goya and his duchess have maintained for posterity a remarkable privacy concerning their liaison. Wh know hardly anything more about it than that, in one form or another it existed.
“The ‘White Duchess’ was the one [painted] for semipublic consumption. It is a marvelous study in doubling and repetition built around two themes, red and white. The only other color in the portrait is Alba’s mane of black hair, which is painted with an extraordinary and sensuous softness: it cascades down her back, and two thick tendrils caressing her shoulders. Her dress is very much in the French manner, not a bit like the maja style of the later [black] portrait; made of gauzy white muslin hemmed with gold embroidery, it is gathered high under her breasts and cinched with a broad crimson sash. The same red is repeated in the bow on her cleavage, in the double row of red coral beads around her throat, in the five-petaled silk bow in her hair, and– not least– in the sweetly parodical red bow her living accessory, a little long-haired creature of the breed known as a bichon frise , bears on its right hind leg. Read More: http://eeweems.com/goya/duchess_white.html a
Clearly, Goya had been inspired– though not to the point of servile copying– by English modes of portraiture that he would have seen in reproduction, in the print cabinet of Sebastian Martinez: the lady of quality seen in a landscape with her attendant dog had often been painted by Romney, Gainsborough, and Reynolds. And the fact that the duchess is attired in flowing white Neoclassical-style rode, probably of Bengal muslin, also attests to Goya’s interest in English Neoclassicism: he is known to have made, during the 1790s, copies after engravings by John Flaxman.” (Page 162 from Robert Hughes Goya, Knopf, 2003) Read More: http://eeweems.com/goya/duchess_white.html