The death in 1700 of Charles II of Spain marked the end of the Spanish Habsburg monarchy. The Habsburgs had established themselves as among the world’s greatest art collectors and the primary source of artistic patronage in Spain. The House of Bourbon that replaced it did not bring with it same level of patronage and it was not until Francisco de Goya was appointed painter to Charles III in 1786, that the court once again became the place in which the most important and influential Spanish painters of the period worked.
Goya worked as ‘Painter to the King’ during a period when political instability was sweeping across Spain and France. When the French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte installed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne, the artist pragmatically retained his position at court. Through his art, Goya sought to document the political turmoil in Spain by depicting a monarchy in decline, a population scrutinised by the Spanish Inquisition and a country occupied by French military forces. Goya often inscribed his works with the testimonial ‘I saw it’ to publicly affirm the certainty of what he painted.
While Goya was commissioned to produce many portraits throughout his career, this portrayal of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington is unique. The only British subject that Goya painted, Wellesley commissioned the artist in 1812 soon after his victory at the Battle of Arapiles (also known as the Battle of Salamanca), where he served as Lieutenant-General of the British Army. In this significant military milestone of the Napoleonic Wars, Wellesley led an alliance of British and Portuguese troops and Spanish guerrilla forces to defeat Napoleon’s French troops and weaken France’s stronghold on the Spanish capital Madrid. Due to the ongoing war and political instability in Spain, the painting took Goya two years to complete and was only given a title in 1814, by which time Wellesley had become the first Duke of Wellington.
The British patron is represented by the same unconventional methods that Goya was renowned for in Spain, simultaneously revealing the character of the subject and the painter’s own criticisms of contemporary life. The Duke of Wellington attests to the brutalities of war and expresses both the subject’s and painter’s intimacy with sorrow and regret. Wellesley, troubled by his experience of war, reflected on the impact this left upon his conscience: ‘My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.’
Goya perfectly captures Wellesley’s melancholia and the pathos that followed his experience of war. While he wears the insignias of military and social success—his medals refer to a range of powerful titles—he is not represented in the manner of a victor. The artist’s interpretation of Wellesley’s physical form and state of mind incites an emotional response from the viewer. With its focus on the subject’s deep ambivalence and internal struggle, this portraits reveals the heroic efforts of an individual to access a common spiritual truth—the utter uselessness of war, irrespective of time or place. The sensitivity of Goya’s depiction draws the viewer to its simple, brutal message.