A Chance Encounter
In addition to the chance of securing a portrait commission from Mr. Twain, I had two other reasons to follow him to Petalumo: I wanted to see some important murals by , and I hoped to meet Goya’s grandson, who still lived in Petalumo and was his ancestor’s artistic executor.
Velasquez fled the Spanish Inquisition in 1638 and came to Alta California, where he spent 22 years as the premiere painter of the New World Renaissance. The altarpiece in the chapel of the municipal palacio in Petalumo is a mural of six panels, larger than life, painted in oil on linen attached to plaster walls, ranged in a semicircle around the asp.
No one was in the chapel on the day I went to see the murals. The sky was mostly overcast, but a chance ray of sunshine through a leaded glass dome illuminated a corner of one of the panels, spot lighting the head of a peasant boy. I opened my sketchbook and copied the head while the light was good. Velasquez had painted him in the foreground, looking back toward the virgin Mary, in an almost three-quarter rear view. I captured the essence of the pose before the sun went behind the clouds and the light dimmed.
I put my sketchbook away and began a close examination of the brushwork on the panels. I borrowed a votive candle from a stand near the altar rail and held it close to the surface of the wall. The finish was very fine, with highlights laid on creamy, smooth, and slightly translucent. The shadows seemed nearly a foot deep, thanks to a generous, almost reckless amount of medium—walnut oil, I’m sure—and a well-laid coat of varnish with very little cracking or surface dirt.
“Last year you would not have seen half the detail,” a voice remarked in the crisply articulated Spanish of Alta California. I turned to see a stooped man in a stained smock, leaning on a cane.
“The paintings do seem very fresh and bright,” I replied, in my more slurred, Castilian version of the same language.
“They are magnificent. I have wanted to see them since I was a boy. I am a painter myself and I have come from Paris to learn from these walls.”
“What can they teach you?”
The old peasant leaned forward, squinting at the surface.
“It is only paint.”
“That’s my point,” I explained, “With one daub of paint smeared on a flat canvas, he creates the illusion of round form, of a real human head, lightly perspiring on a sunny day. More than that, the shape of the edge somehow informs us that Cortez is noble, intelligent, brave, and passionate.”
“He was the father of the New World. This painting is called Discovery. It is 1518 and Cortez is claiming New Spain for the Spanish king. However, in later pictures he is of a different mind.”
The panel shows Cortez planting the Spanish flag in the sand of a stylized tropical beach. He is surrounded by brutish conquistadors in silver helms, their poses echoed and slyly mocked by three amused Indians in the background.
“This is so clever, so simple.” I pointed to the lower part of the panel. “Velasquez uses the noon shadows of the figures to tie them all together with one strong horizontal dark shape, like a solid border on a lace mantilla.”
I spent more than two hours examining Velasquez’ work in detail, and the old gentleman stuck with me the whole time. He became my personal tour guide, as we worked our way around the asp with votive candles, like monks of art performing the stations of the brush. I was amazed at how much he knew of history, and how quickly he grasped the finer points of my explanations of composition, color, and brushwork. The old man pointed out that in Conquest, the second panel, the same three Indians reappear as the chiefs of the , , and , surrendering to Cortez in 1522. Cortez’ silver helm is now trimmed with and he receives a symbolic golden mace from the conquered chieftains.
The third panel is Repentance. It shows Cortez bent over a stone altar, stripped to the waist, his helmet lying in the dust, being lashed by a tonsured monk in a coarse brown robe.
“Why is a lowly monk beating the Emperor?” I asked.
“Here it is 1524, and Cortez is not yet emperor. After the conquest he asked the bishops of Old Spain to send him priests from the Franciscan and other mendicant orders—priests who took a vow of poverty and ministry to the common people. Cortez feared that the corrupt secular clergy of Spain would enslave and murder the Indians. He wanted priests who might help him to include the Indians a new society. Cortez had himself lashed in public to show the natives that even he was a sinner and not above the rule of the Church.”
“The composition is wonderful, but the subject matter is not to my taste.”
We moved on to the Apparition, the most famous panel and the one my teacher raved about as the perfect depiction of ethereal light. It shows the appearing to Juan Diego in 1531. The Indian peasant boy and the dusky Virgin are bathed in shimmering light that surrounds their heads with soft-edged, not-quite-halos.
“Look how Velasquez blends his colors from white to yellow to brown. From a distance you would swear he had used gold leaf and not simple oil paints.”
“The apparition,” my guide explained, “was confirmed as a genuine miracle by Bishop Zumarraga of New Spain, in defiance of Rome. This miracle is considered the founding event of the Western Church, the slender edge of the wedge that eventually split the Catholic Church into the Western, Roman, and Eastern rites we know today.”
“This painting is the miracle.” I was spellbound, consumed with envy, almost inarticulate. “The spiraling, interlocking shapes of dark and light… the lost and found edges... it takes your breath away.”
My guide just smiled. I could not tell if he approved of my enthusiasm or was merely amused.
The least successful panel is the Cleansing. Cortez appears again on another beach, banishing the Papal Nuncio to a deserted offshore island, along with seven of his own more vicious lieutenants guilty of murdering Indians. Burning in a bonfire are all of New Spain’s copies of the 1545 issued by Pope Paul III. Even Velasquez’ compositional genius was foiled by the necessity of including such a large cast of characters and their stage props.
In Coronation, the sixth and final panel, Cortez crowns himself Emperor of the New World and protector of the faith in 1546. He sits on a throne-like chair and smiles triumphantly, but seems pale and thin. At his elbow is a sheet of parchment.
“That is the letter he wrote to Pope Paul III,” my guide explained. “Cortez demanded that the Pope make Juan Diego a saint and Bishop Zumarraga a cardinal. Naturally, the Pope excommunicated him for his arrogance. Cortez was sick and died soon after. He didn’t live to see New Spain become an independent empire, but his vision inspired later reformers.”
The old conservator showed me where serious water damage had been repaired. As he explained how the linen had been removed, the roof and wall rebuilt, and the linen replaced and artfully retouched, I finally realized that he had done the repainting himself. It dawned on my poor, stupid brain that I had been lecturing someone who probably knew more about technical painting matters than myself.
I apologized for my single-mindedness and at last took the time for formal introductions.
I said, “My name is John Singer Sargent,” including my mother’s family name in the middle, so it sounded more like a Spanish name.
“Pleased to meet you.” He bowed slightly over his cane. “My name is Francisco Goya y Sanchez de Goya y Lucientes.”
As I deciphered his name, my mouth gaped wide open. “Then you are . . .”
“Yes, I am. Francisco Jose de Goya was my grandfather.”
Here was the second object of my pilgrimage to Petalumo, the grandson of the great painter Goya. I apologized again and told him how much I admired his grandfather’s early work that I had seen in Spain.
“I feel such a fool, to have come halfway around the world to visit you, then act like a know-it-all and actually explain your countryman Velasquez to you, like a boarding school drawing master. I am exceedingly embarrassed.”
He laughed. “Not at all. I was charmed by your enthusiasm. And you actually know quite a lot about the master’s painting, for a boarding school drawing master.”
“You are too kind. This is wonderful. I was hoping for the chance to meet you and talk with you about your grandfathers work.”
“If you like, I would be pleased to receive you in my studio. I have some works of my grandfather’s that you might find interesting, and I’d like to hear more of your observations of the state of art in the Old World.”
Later that same afternoon Señor Francisco showed me his grandfather’s old studio, the sky-lit upper floor of an enormous adobe palacio on Canal Hildalgo. It was full of my host’s own work, mostly oil portraits, plus a few still lifes and landscapes. I admired them dutifully. To my surprise and disappointment, they were barely competent, with boring compositions, crude color, and numerous subtle drawing errors. Francisco had not inherited the Goya genius.
That genius survived on the walls. Grandfather Goya had painted the walls with dark, fantastic scenes: a Greek Colossus towering over a tranquil California pueblo; an Iberian Saturn devouring his children; conquistadors drawing and quartering a peon farmer; heraldic pumas attacking Spanish imperial eagles; a carnival of infants; a jury of baboons. Some were allegories in which Vice triumphs over Virtue. Others recast mythological creatures as characters in the history of New Spain. All were unique and vastly different from the bravura portraits that I had seen in Europe. Goya’s alla prima strokes and dynamic compositions were present, but in service of a darker vision, one more individual, more tragic, more insane than I would ever have imagined possible. The more one looked at these fantastic murals, the more peculiar and upsetting they seemed.
Señor Francisco confided in me, leaning close with his hand on my arm, as if it were our dirty secret, “I never receive the alcalde or council members up here. Them I entertain downstairs.”
“I can see why,” I said.
“Alta California has become a nation of miserly merchants. Cowards and dunces. No one wants a real painting. They just want their boring, excremental lives illustrated in gilt and aquamarine.”
He pulled six canvases out of a rack in the corner and leaned them against the wall.
“These are the only easel paintings of my grandfather’s I have left.”
They were studies actually, not finished pictures. The figures and forms were roughly blocked-in, lacking detail and refinement.
The most complete was a half-size reclining figure.
“Grandfather called her ‘The Maja Reformed.’ She was mistress of a grand rancho to the east. Here you see her fully clothed like a Hellenic maiden. Her first portrait was a nude, same pose, but life-sized. One of the best things grandfather ever did, but he was nearly hung for it. You see, it wasn’t Athena or Diana or some other classical slut. It was a real, contemporary slut and the local jefes could not tolerate that. Grandfather repainted her clothed, and this is the study for that painting. The nude he hid away for years. After he died, my Papa retitled it ‘Helen Reclining During the Sack of Troy,’ and sold it for pocket change to the Tsar’s bastard third cousin across the river.”
We had a good laugh over that, and I studied the study for “the Maja Reformed.” Even though it was a rough study, it had been varnished, and on top of the varnish were traces of another layer of oil paint.
“It looks like he varnished it and then started to over-paint it.”
“Oh, that is my fault. Years ago I thought I might finish it enough to sell it. My ‘improvements’ looked terrible, so I wiped them off. I am a better restorer than forger.”
“It’s fortunate you protected the original with varnish.”
“Yes, of course. It would never do to permanently alter his work.”
“Yes, of course.” I could understand the temptation. A little refinement here and there, adding a darker background, some softening of edges, enhancing of lighting, and it would be a charming, fresh study by a master painter. It was beyond Francisco’s skills, but I could do it.
“It is a pity,” I said, “That Goya did not take it a little further and sign it. Small easel paintings by 18th century masters are scarce and in great demand. They bring good prices in Paris these days.” I turned the painting over and examined the stretchers and tacks on the back.
“Is there much interest in these kinds of studies, unfinished and unsigned?”
“A little, surely.” The back of the painting looked genuinely old and undisturbed. “There are dealers in Paris who would strip the varnish off a painting like this, get somebody to finish it off with some “authentic” touches, forge a signature, give it a new coat of varnish, cook it a little over the fire to age it, then sell it for thirty thousand francs.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve done any of that sort of work yourself?”
“No, not exactly.”
He raised his eyebrow, but said nothing.
I shrugged, “When I was in school in Paris, I copied a couple of the Dutch masters in the Louvre. A dealer bought one of them for a few francs, and I heard that he later passed it off to an English collector. As students, we weren’t supposed to do that sort of thing, so I never looked into it too deeply.”
“Interesting.” He began putting the paintings back in the rack and said no more, but a seed had been planted.
I thought that perhaps I had been too forthcoming about my possible forgeries, so I changed the subject. I told him about traveling with Mark Twain, who hoped to visit Rossland to the north.
“Go with him if you possibly can,” He said, “In Rossland they still commission portraits worth painting, and they’re aristocratic enough to like what they like, not what the peons or the church tell them to like.”
“I’m tempted to take your advice. Alta California is a charming, colorful place, but I don’t sense much of a market for portraits here.”
“You are correct. In our so-called classless society, no one cares a fig about art. In Rossland you might have a chance. I know their Minister of Culture, Krepotsky is his name. He has the power to commission paintings, sculpture, and monuments for the crown. Here in California that job is performed pueblo by pueblo, by committees of cretins.”
Before I left, he set me a task, as if he were Carolus assigning homework at : “You have an interest in forgeries. While you are here, go see the mantle of Juan Diego. It is on display this month in the cathedral. Examine it closely and tell me what you think.”
© Patrick Fanning, 2012