Looking at Art

Floating in Space

Goya captioned a drawing of a couple suspended in the air 'joy'—but the true meaning of the picture is not so certain.


From 1796 until he died, in 1828, Goya made eight albums of drawings. These are private works the artist created for his enjoyment and perhaps to show to members of his inner circle of family and friends. Like all his drawings, they must be kept in boxes to protect them from the damaging effects of light. So they are not so familiar as his paintings, which are on the walls of most major museums.

The drawings in all but two of the albums were executed with brush and wash. Rendered in a cartoonish idiom, they create a theater of the imagination. The compositions are complete and resemble little paintings. Often they are accompanied by a terse inscription. However, unlike the captions to conventional satirical prints and drawings, the inscriptions in Goya’s graphic works often complicate the message of the piece. Hidden from the prying eyes of the Inquisition and the evil designs of political enemies, these drawings allowed Goya to comment on his experience of life.

Regozijo (Joy, ca. 1816–20) is one of 21 of the artist’s album drawings in the exhibition “The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya,” organized by the Frick Collection in New York. At first glance, we see two heavily draped figures, their arms akimbo, their legs thrashing in the air. Goya has suspended the laws of gravity; there is no ground below the figures and neither, for that matter, are there clouds in the sky. The two bodies float like astronauts in the vacuum of space. According to the inscription, their release from the physical world is connected to the experience of pure joy.

This interpretation is fortified by a small detail. Looking closely at the hands of the upper figure, we can discern the bulbous shapes of castanets. Although we now associate this instrument with flamenco dancing, in Goya’s time the word castanet was slang for “happiness.” This makes sense; the two figures are swept off their feet in a state of rapture.

A second glance begins to undermine the apparent certainty of this interpretation. The faces are those of older people. Not that the elderly inevitably lose the capacity to experience joy, but there is a somewhat grotesque quality to the physiognomies of these two. Are they real people? And if not, why does Goya represent this powerful emotion by resorting to caricature? The question is open. As do many of the album drawings, the composition poses questions to which no definitive answers are provided. This studied ambiguity is a constant feature of Goya’s later work and helps to explain why these drawings never lose their attraction.

Goya’s control of the medium plays a huge part in the success of the drawing. The complex effects of the woman’s costume are achieved by brilliant handling of light and shadow, especially in the skirt, where the wash is subtly modulated in tone; irregular patches of blank paper create the highlights. In contrast to these free-flowing brushstrokes are the faces, which the artist has delineated with the delicacy and precision of a miniature painter. Goya pleases us with his artistry as he teases us with his wit and imagination.

Jonathan Brown, Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Fine Arts at New York University, organized the exhibition with independent scholar Lisa A. Banner and Susan Grace Galassi, senior curator at the Frick Collection.

“The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya” is up at the Frick Collection in New York through January 9.

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