“I have no eyesight, pulse, pen or ink,” wrote the elderly Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, half-jokingly, in a letter to a friend. “The only thing I have in excess is willpower.” No doubt the painter meant that, despite the infirmities of age, he was still producing pictures. But anyone who sees “Goya’s Last Works” at the Frick Collection will sense something nobler than endurance in those wry lines. Goya, as he neared death, made no compromises: There was no wavering of the eye, no softening of the sensibility. He remained as committed as ever—relentlessly so, joyfully so—to the revelatory truth. No picture hides behind visual rhetoric. Each seems freshly won.
In 1824, at the age of 78, the deaf and increasingly frail artist had settled in Bordeaux, joining the expatriates who had fled there from the autocratic Spanish regime. Most of the 50 pictures in this wonderful show come from the four years of exile before his death in 1828. In the Frick’s twin basement galleries, the curators Jonathan Brown and Susan Grace Galassi have placed painted portraits in one room and drawings and ivories in the other. (Lithographs are upstairs.) None of the celebrated black paintings usually associated with late Goya is on view—he made them in Spain shortly before he went into exile—but their spirit is present, especially in certain tiny ivories of large feeling: Man Looking for Fleas in His Shirt, pictured here, measures only 2 3/8 by 2 5/16 inches.
You might have thought that the powerful black paintings—those visions of a modern hell—would have dominated everything the old man made thereafter. Nope. This small exhibit contains a remarkable range of mood. Not long after he made the black paintings, Goya painted the Frick’s Portrait of a Lady (María Martínez de Puga?), a picture that’s extraordinarily radical in pictorial terms—its free brushwork anticipates Manet—but also fresh and delicate in character. The sitter has a pert, wrenlike daintiness; the milk-and-ashes palette is exquisite. Goya’s portrait of Leandro Fernández de Moratín—a brilliant satirist—is full of affection. The subject had an unaristocratic nose, a magnificent nose, the nose of a butcher. You can be sure he smiled at its depiction. That nose represents Goya’s essential modernity. He was painting the new, less-decorous Europeans, the forward-looking people who were abandoning clichés of manner and appearance. And he was insisting, in a modern way, upon the facts of the matter. Although known for his sharp satire and phantasmal imagination, Goya grounded his art in keen observation. He painted and drew from life; he wasn’t just another artist with ideas. That helped give his imagination, even at its most monstrous or caricatural, a quality of vivid reality. Goya’s deafness probably helped concentrate his eye, enabling him to look inward with complete absorption and outward with intense focus. (He seems the least distracted of artists, never less or more than himself.) In Bordeaux, he made dozens of crayon drawings that are as carefully observed and subtly rendered as any in his oeuvre. The beggar rolling on a trolley, the man flying back on roller skates, come startlingly to life. So do creatures he imagines, such as a web-footed dog. In the glow of ivory, a material usually employed for fussy miniatures, he found something luminous and shadow-throwing—like a swinging lantern on a dark night.
The Frick, like Goya working on a bit of ivory, is now making a virtue of its small size—creating exhibits of an intimate intensity rarely found in New York. In “Goya’s Last Works,” for example, the curators have included a self-portrait of the artist during a period of illness that, in this close environment, seems to offer a contrapuntal comment upon the rest of this work. Goya presents himself as pale, limp, lying back—suddenly without that willpower. His doctor tends to him as shadowy, menacing figures draw near. The picture celebrates a new kind of hero. We find, instead of an officer cradling a mortally wounded general, a doctor (a man of science) reviving an artist, exhausted from bravely seeing too much too well.