Last weekend at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, I came across Francisco Goya’s stunning painting of the Napoleonic general Nicolas Philippe Guye. Guye had been wounded at Austerlitz and later served as aide-de-camp to Napoleon’s older brother Joseph. In 1810, when Goya painted this portrait, Guye was governor of Seville and Joseph Bonaparte King of Spain.
Goya’s sympathetic portrait of a French general surprised me. I’d always thought of him as the Spanish patriot who gruesomely portrayed French invaders executing Spaniards in his famous painting The Third of May 1808. Like many tales of the brutal Spanish Peninsula War (1807-1814), there are two sides to Goya’s story.
Before the French invasion, Goya had worked his way up to Spanish court artist, painting a number of royal portraits. He was, however, against the Inquisition, which operated with unbridled power, torturing, imprisoning, and killing innocent citizens. When Spanish King Carlos IV and his son Ferdinand VII abdicated under pressure from Napoleon, Goya welcomed the French who abolished the Inquisition. Having sworn loyalty to King Joseph (Bonaparte), he enjoyed great popularity among the French and Spanish ruling class.
The Spanish people, however, rebelled against French rule. In the ensuing conflict, both sides committed atrocities. Goya became disillusioned with Joseph’s rule (as did Napoleon himself). In 1814, when the tide changed and Ferdinand VII reclaimed the throne, Goya painted The Third of May 1808 and a series called The Disasters of War.
Scholars disagree whether Goya was an opportunist, a French sympathizer or a Spanish patriot. Few, however, doubt his talent as a painter.