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Excerpt from THE PAINTER’S WOMEN by Fionnuala Brennan

September 30, 2015

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The Duchess of Alba

Journal extract                                                      

San Lúcar, March 1797

There he is, the arrogant fellow standing in front of me holding his palette like a shield, wielding his brush like a dagger. Totally ignoring my displeasure. Who on earth does he think he is?

‘Excellencia, Maria del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Alvarez de Toledo, 13th Duchess of Alba,’ he is saying sarcastically, as if nothing has happened, ‘why so churlish this morning? Please assume your pose. Let us proceed with the portrait. You can stop stamping your dainty silver shoe and take your hands off your wasp waist if you please. It looks so aggressive. Surely you do not want to have the whole world see this side of you?’

Oh, how he infuriates me! I want to wipe that mocking smile off his face.

‘I am incensed Señor Goya because you are a treacherous snake. And an obtuse one. How can you think for one moment that I can pose for you who have spent the night disporting himself with one of my servants?’

Insolently he raises his penetrating black eyes and looks at me as at a child in a tantrum. Such a cool, detached, ironic, fearless look.

‘My dear Duchess, I am surprised. You are jealous! And you call me treacherous. You, who have more dalliances than all the ladies of the Court together. You, who have taken so many lovers; actors, toreros, young students even. You, who have invited me here to this secluded place, although you are so newly widowed.’

I could strike his podgy face. I want to wrench away his palette and brushes. I have a mind to throw a jug of water over that portrait. But I do nothing. I sit there with my mouth open and my eyes blazing. Why do I not order him to leave San Lúcar at once? Can it be that I am afraid to cross this impudent commoner who has vastly overstepped the bounds of his social position? Nobody speaks to the Duchess of Alba as he has just done. Especially not such an old and ugly man, who is as deaf as a bedpost.

‘Excellencia,’ he says dryly, ‘your face is twisted and sour. I shall paint you as a termagant if you so wish. Now, please readjust your mantilla. You should also tighten the sash. Good. Now place one hand on your waist and point the other to the ground.’

I obey but refuse to smile. He continues painting, a smug look on his face. I stand there like a sullen rebuked child and I ask myself once again how is it that I have allowed this man to become so familiar. To order me about like a servant. While I am standing in the pose he had commanded, I remember the first time I went to his studio in Madrid. I had heard of his liking for the bizarre, for the erotic. And I also knew that his work is admired by that old trout Maria Louisa, who fancies herself as an artist. So I had several motives for wishing to meet Don Francisco Goya. The portly creature, Maria Louisa, calls me a bag of bones. It was wonderful to hear how furious she was when I ordered a dozen copies of her latest French dresses and gave them to my servants to wear. Revenge is so sweet.

When I entered his studio he was standing at an easel with his brush.

He did not turn around. I remembered then that I had also heard that he had become deaf so I had to walk right up and stand in front of him and repeat myself. I told him to make up my face with the cosmetics I had brought with me. I did not fully understand why I wanted him to do that, to touch my face. It was not only because I had heard also that he was arrogant and I wanted to put him down, to show him my power. Commanding a great painter, so sought after, to be a lady’s maid. If he was surprised by such a request, he did not show it. I have learned since then that it not at all easy to read Don Francisco de Goya. He motioned me to repeat what I had said more slowly, then smiled in an annoyingly knowing way, as if he could also read the real reason. Without a word, he took the bag of cosmetics from me. He darkened my eyebrows like two black bridges, drew lines of kohl around my eyes, rubbed rouge into my cheeks, and dusted powder over my whole face until I sneezed. It was like he was playing with a doll. And all the time he held my face in his hands and a small smile turned up his full lips. He was humouring me, I realised, as a parent humours a silly child, or a lover cajoles a petulant woman. I, who had come to command him, had been reduced to childishness. It was then that I determined that I would have my revenge on him too, that I would enslave the insolent fellow. I would exercise the full strength of my charm and beauty on him. I realised that if I was to have power over this man, it could not be wielded simply because I am an aristocrat. However, I reassured myself that the task should not be too difficult. At that time I was still a beautiful woman of thirty-three, while he was low-born, at least fifty, rough-looking, and deaf. Not that it matters to me if a man is high or low born, as long as he is handsome and fascinates me.

After that first visit to his studio, I invited Señor Goya to Buenavista and commissioned him to paint a portrait of José and another of myself. For that portrait, I chose a deceptively simple white dress adorned with my favourite red – a deep wide sash to show off my waist, a red bow on my breast, and another pinned on my hair. I even tied a red ribbon on the leg of my little dog at my feet. I know about colour too. The meaning of red.

But my plan of entrapment did not work as smoothly, or as quickly, as I had thought. Most men on whom I cast my eye succumbed very quickly and I do not believe it was only because of who I am. I know that when I pass by in the streets of Madrid people run to their windows to catch a glimpse of me. I am not blind. But this Goya fellow seems blind to my charms. He continues to treat me like a spoilt child. I am not a silly woman without a brain in my head. The most influential and enlightened men in Spain, including the poet Don Manuel Quintana, and the poet and philosopher Don Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos are among my friends. The more indifferent he seems, the more determined I am to have him. In truth I am fascinated by this uncouth artist. I ask myself why this is so and have to admit that it is simply because he appears so impenetrable, contradictory and, most exasperating of all, unattainable. He has become my challenge.

 From The Painter’s Women by Fionnuala Brennan

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