Goya and The Duchess

Artists and aristocracy have been collaborators for a long time. Throughout history, such relationships have been brilliantly synergistic. The artists benefit from having wealthy patrons and famous painting subjects while the aristocrats enjoy the attention, self-aggrandizement, and personalized custom artwork. Are both players using each other in these scenarios? Absolutely. Are they both pleased with the arrangement? You bet.

The Spanish painter Francisco de Goya benefitted from wealthy patronage probably more than any other artist. The darling of Spanish monarchs, Goya was appointed First Court Painter by King Charles IV. The King and his wife, Queen Maria Luisa, sat for the artist themselves many times, donning flamboyant costumes and royal regalia. Goya received countless portrait commissions from other high-ranking government officials, requests for altarpieces for churches and cathedrals, and was made a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Art. But of all of Goya’s many prominent sitters, one stands out above all the others.

Her full birth name was María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva Alvarez de Toledo y Silva Bazán. A member of Spanish nobility, Maria held the title of 13th Duchess of Alba. When she married José María Alvarez de Toledo y Gonzaga, the 15th Duke of Medina-Sidonia, she became the wealthiest woman in Spain. Known to be eccentric, beautiful, and strong-willed, the Duchess clearly charmed Goya during one of their earliest encounters, at which she asked the artist to apply her makeup. Goya wrote in a letter, “the Alba woman, who yesterday came to the studio to make me paint her face, and she got her way; I certainly enjoy it more than painting on canvas, and I still have to do a full-length portrait of her”. Well, what do you know? Francisco Goya – makeup artist! 🙂

Of course Goya did get around to painting the Duchess in full length portrait. One of many, this is The White Duchess, 1795. Notice that pointing right finger:


When the Duke died in 1796, the Duchess was widowed at the age of 34. She went into mourning, dressed in black, and hid away in her estate near Cádiz, a city in the beautiful Andalusian region of southwestern Spain. It was during this stay in Andalusia that Goya painted most of his works of the Duchess. This arrangement prompted a great deal of gossip and innuendo, leading many to believe that the artist was having an affair with the grieving widow. But it has never been proven. Although it’s possible that the relationship between Goya and the Duchess was strictly platonic, a male artist (a married one) and his charismatic female muse (vulnerable from a recent loss) holed up intimately together, creating paintings on the magnificent Spanish coast, does sound like a recipe for illicit romance, does it not? We’ll never know for sure.

Goya self-portrait, circa 1775:


Goya’s Mourning Portrait of the Duchess of Alba, also known as The Black Duchess. Again with the finger-pointing!


Contrary to popular belief, the Duchess of Alba was NOT the model for Goya’s scandalous Maja series. The woman in those paintings was more likely Pepita Tudó, the mistress of the Spanish Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy. That Godoy was the first recorded owner of the Maja works lends credibility to the theory. It’s also been considered that the “model” for Maja was really a composite of several women that Goya “pieced together”.

The Duchess died at the young age of 40, which fueled suspicion that the cause of such a premature death must have involved foul play, such as poisoning. Who would want to poison the Duchess? The aforementioned Queen Maria Luisa who was known to despise her. In 1945, heirs to the House of Alba arranged for the Duchess’ body to be exhumed and autopsied in hopes of putting the rumors to rest. No evidence of poisoning was found, and the death has been officially attributed to tuberculosis. Interestingly, the Duchess bequeathed in her will a substantial annuity to Goya’s son Javier.

6 thoughts on “Goya and The Duchess

  1. fredh1 says:

    Goya is my favorite artist of all, though I like his later work better than his young work. It’s amazing to me that he was successful as a court painter, because even his most conventional court portraits have something weird and unsettling about them.

    • artmodel says:


      Very true. I noticed that myself while looking at his portraits. Goya was definitely not the “airbrusher” of his day. It’s interesting that the nobility didn’t mind being depicted in a less than flattering fashion.

      I know Goya is your favortie, and was thinking of you as I wrote this post 🙂


  2. Like you, I adore Goya too. hes an exceptional artist. thanks for this post. ive learned much about him.

  3. prem says:

    I recently saw the movie “GOYA’S GHOST”. is it the real story? it is a fantastic movie.

    • artmodel says:


      I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard several people praise it like you have. I don’t know about the accuracy of it, though.

      Thanks for commenting on Museworthy!


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