The Frick Collection
Goya's Last Works
Special Exhibition: Goya's Last Works Miniatures on Ivory

During his first winter in Bordeaux (1824–25), Goya tried a new medium — a form of miniature painting on ivory executed in an improvisational technique of his own invention. This emerging interest may have been piqued by his plans for Leocadia’s young daughter, Rosario, to study miniature painting. In a letter of 1825 to his Parisian contact Joaquín María de Ferrer y Cafranga, the artist expresses pride in his idiosyncratic creations:

It is true that last winter I painted on ivory, and I have a collection of nearly forty exercises, but they are original miniatures which I never seen the like of before, because the whole is made up of points and things which look more like Velázquez’ brushwork than that of Mengs.

These tiny paintings are grand in conception and imagination. A variety of subjects from Goya’s rich repertoire of images reappear in the miniatures. Woman with Clothes Blowing in the Wind recalls the Capricho of a similar subject, but without the satiric sting. Reclining Nude can claim several ancestors, and a maja with celestina — a leitmotif of Goya’s art — makes a final appearance. Goya also revisits the biblical stories of Susanna and the Two Elders and Judith and Holofernes, reworking the scenes to suit the new format.

Fantasy and recollection are at play in these late works. On a stage no larger than a tiny ivory chip and using shards of memory for the narrative, Goya produced an exhilarating drama of artistic invention.

Goya departed from the traditional miniature technique of stippling — applying tiny touches of color with a fine-pointed brush until they coalesce into the desired images — for a broader means of execution. His improvisational process is described by a young painter friend, Antonio de Brugada, who witnessed Goya at work:

His miniatures bore no resemblance to fine Italian miniatures nor even those of [Jean Baptiste] Isabey. . . . Goya had never been able to imitate anyone, and he was too old to begin. He blackened the ivory plaque and let fall on it a drop of water which removed part of the black ground as it spread out, tracing random light areas. Goya took advantage of these traces and always turned them into something original and unexpected.

In transforming the stains of water into recognizable forms, Goya added accents by scratching the surface with a sharp pointed instrument; touches of watercolor were deftly applied; outlines were reinforced in black; and small patches of the surface were wiped to produce a range of shadows and highlights.

Ten examples of Goya’s ivories have been assembled for this exhibition. In the following five plaques, attention is focused on the figures’ faces. Within a minuscule framework, Goya achieves range and magnitude of expression.

For more information about the works of art included in the exhibition and to see the related images, click on the following links: