Text by Geoffrey Smith
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On 22 July 1812, Lieutenant General the Earl of Wellington (as he then was), at the head of an army of perhaps 50,000 men inflicted a severe defeat on a French force of similar size near Salamanca in a battle which military historians consider to be ‘Wellington’s Masterpiece’. A few days later he liberated Madrid, a city on the verge of starvation, receiving a delirious welcome. Although only a temporary respite for the denizens of the Spanish capital, in the long term the battle turned out to be a turning point in the war against Napoleonic France in the Iberian Peninsula.
It was during this first stay in the Spanish capital that Wellington sat for Goya who, before the war, had been the principal painter to the Spanish court but who had also completed, only two years before, a portrait of the puppet King Joseph, brother of Napoleon. As soon as Wellington left, the French swept back into Madrid later in the same year, so it obviously paid to be outwardly politically flexible. In fact Goya was torn — as a liberal he initially welcomed certain aspects of the French regime (compared to the rigid conservatism and stifling religious orthodoxy of the Bourbon monarchy) but as a patriot he hated the military occupation of his country. It seems that this painting may have been based on a wonderfully executed drawing of Wellington now in the British Museum — presumably the general could not spare the time even for Goya’s notably modest requirements for sitters. The same drawing also appears to have been the basis for an equestrian portrait which Goya also made at the same time and which now hangs in Wellington’s London home, Apsley House.
Wellington’s dress uniform is encrusted with decorations bestowed by a number of grateful European monarchs. Around his neck hangs the emblem of the Golden Fleece and beneath that the Peninsular Gold Cross; on his breast the star of the Order of the Bath glitters above two equally lustrous Iberian gongs, the Portuguese Order of the Tower and Sword and the Order of San Fernando from Spain. Bolstered by this impressive assortment of honours the general stares imperiously out of the canvas, his eyes penetratingly alert, his mouth very slightly open as if he might be about to bark an order to an attentive member of his staff. As one would expect, he holds himself ramrod straight aware of his lofty status and reputation.
Wellington went on to achieve even greater glory and eventually to become Prime Minister. Sadly, Goya’s hopes (with those of a great many of his countrymen) for the emergence of a more liberal government, after the upheavals of the years of war, were dashed when the viciously reactionary Fernando VII was restored to power in 1814. After living for ten years under an increasingly brutal and repressive regime, Goya eventually chose exile in France, dying in Bordeaux in 1828.
1814 Théodore Géricault: An Officer of the Imperial Horse Guards Charging, Paris, Musée du Louvre
1814 Caspar David Friedrich: Early Snow, Hamburg, Kunsthalle
1815 Joseph Mallord William Turner: Dido Building Carthage, London, Tate Britain