Serene portraits by a fiery master

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Francisco Goya, Spanish master painter of the 18th century, based the enduring achievement of his portraits on the "solid testimony of truth" – the premise he once inscribed on a sketch in his own hand.

Gone were fussy backgrounds, elaborate props, and the undue emphasis on rank and affectation that had previously defined portraiture in European art. Goya's portraits brought into focus the individuality of his sitters, whatever their social standing, making the inherent qualities of his subjects palpable in paint.

In the public imagination, Goya remains a fiery Spaniard who encompassed the heights and depths of human experience in his art – a "Rabelais with pencil and brush," as one critic described him in the 19th century. Therefore,it is all the more intriguing to behold the beauty and serenity with which Goya depicted women in the major canvases included in the exhibition, "Goya: Images of Women" that recently went on view at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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The first-ever exhibit organized as an exploration of the theme of women in Goya's art, the show presents several important paintings from the Prado Museum in Madrid – including the renowned "Naked Maja" (Maja denuda) and "Clothed Maja" (Maja vestida), as well as tapestry cartoons, lithographs, prints, and graphic etchings from his famous "Disasters of War" series.

The exhibit shows that Goya often painted women from the most powerful Spanish families of his day, capturing them at the time when they were beginning to emerge from complete immersion in the private sphere into more public roles.

Pictured here, however, is "Therese-Louise de Sureda" (1803/1804), whose husband, manager of a porcelain factory, came from Goya's less rarefied circle of friends. In a painting of almost snapshot immediacy, it is as though the subject has just turned her head as the artist called her name.

She sits upright and alert, her sumptuous Parisian gown rendered in the free and generous brush-strokes of Romanticism – her direct, unapologetic gaze conveying a modern defiance. Her image shines forth on a golden thronelike chair from a dark background of visual silence.

There can be little doubt that Goya achieved here his avowed "solid testimony of truth" about Therese-Louise de Sureda, as about the vast array of women of all ages, spheres, and experiences who were part of his most lasting achievement: to tell the truth in paint.

• 'Goya: Images of Women' is on view at The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. until June 2.

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