This haunting miniature, reproduced here at actual size, exemplifies Goya’s interest in various painting techniques and his experimental use of media for expressive effect. A tall monk and a smaller old woman seem frightened or surprised by something they see in our direction. The monk appears to talk to the horrified, staring woman. The unsettling quality of their expressions and ambiguity of the scene are characteristic of Goya’s genius.
The refinement of the palette, precious support, and intimate scale suggest the ivories painted in exile were intensely private. Goya’s experience of creating works of art in series (especially in his prints) is evident in this medium, as he worked out similar disturbing scenes with psychological overtones in the other known ivories. They build on his achievement in the enigmatic Black Paintings, completed in the Quinta del Sordo a few years before he left Spain for Bordeaux. Such disquieting content, long present in peripheral figures in the paintings or as primary subject matter in his prints, is here allowed free reign. Goya’s miniatures are a towering achievement.
According to the only written account, Goya worked from a spot of water dropped on the surface of the ivory, which he had blackened. It remains a mystery what led the aged artist to experiment in this manner. The order in which the preserved miniatures were painted and the reconstruction of the progress of his technical skill in the new medium are likewise issues to be studied further by specialists.
Goya surpasses all of his contemporaries in his modernity. With his emphasis on the primacy of artistic process and chance, and of uncertain and subjective meanings, he reaches beyond Romanticism and sows the seeds for the artistic developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That he should do so most persuasively and enigmatically in the medium of these small miniatures, painted on the thinnest sheets of ivory, is astonishing, as he subverts and renews an art form traditionally intended for portraits, small likenesses to be carried or worn on one’s person.
The place of the Princeton miniature in the history of art, however, is demonstrable. This miniature was in the collection of the New York lawyer, art lover, and collector John Quinn (1870–1924), who lent it to the groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913. It is thus a document for the history of American avant-garde taste and the critical fortunes of the most troubling and suggestive of the great Spanish painters, an artist who can claim the title of the first modern master.
In December 1825, Goya wrote to his friend Joaquín Ferrer, "It is true that last winter I painted on ivory, and have a collection of some forty experiments, but it is a new kind of miniature which I never saw before." Then seventy-nine years old, Goya was living in exile in Bordeaux, having fled the oppressive rule of Spain’s King Ferdinand VII. He could no longer see or hear well but nevertheless devised an entirely new method of painting. Instead of building up a figure from tiny dots of paint, he blackened pieces of ivory and let random drops of water create forms he would then develop. Goya did not paint these tiny scenes from nature but from his imagination. His experience of creating works of art in series (especially in his prints) is evident in this medium, as he worked out similar scenes with psychological overtones in the other known ivories. Such disquieting content—long present in peripheral figures in his paintings or as primary subject matter in his prints—is here allowed free reign.
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).