A Case of Mistaken Misidentity?

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The Colossus, Goya, c. 1810-1812/Museo Nacional del Prado

The Colossus, Goya, c. 1810-1812/Museo Nacional del Prado

I was glad to see in the Wall Street Journal this morning a piece by the critic and historian Barbara Rose insisting that plenty of knowledgeable people still believe that it was Goya who painted that strange masterpiece The Colossus, which has been in the permanent collection of the Prado since 1931. The painting, which shows a giant with his eyes closed looming over a landscape filled with fleeing refugees, dates from the Peninsular War, the period of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and the Spanish-British effort to push him back, the same era in which Goya produced his Disasters of War.

Although there had been disputes about its authorship for a while, it was still a shock when the Prado withdrew the painting from a Goya exhibition it was about to open last April because of doubts about its attribution. Rose tells us that last month Manuela Mena, the museum’s curator of 18th century paintings, published a report on the Prado website saying that the painting was probably the work of one of Goya’s assistants, an obscure figure named Asencio Julia. (But if that report is still on the website I’m not able to find it on the English language version.)

But according to Rose, the main evidence for the Julia attribution are marks discovered by x-ray in a corner of the canvas that may or may not be the letters A. J. That seems like pretty slim evidence to me. Julia never produced anything again in his life to equal the power and invention of The Colossus, whereas it looks very much like a work that could have come from the genius who produced The Disasters of War. And Rose reminds us that this “proof” has not persuaded some of the best known experts on Spanish painting, including Jonathan Brown, Nigel Glendinning and Fernando Checa, a former director of the Prado. (In his biography of Goya Robert Hughes mentions Glendinning’s speculation that the picture might illustrate a poem by a Basque writer, Juan Bautista Arriaza, that imagines “a guardian spirit rising from the mountains to crush Napoleon.”)

Given the disputes over several other of Goya’s best known works, like the phenomenal “Black Paintings” on the walls of a farmhouse where Goya once lived, she suggests that “an international committee to create a new and definitive Goya catalogue raisonnĂ©.” Until then, I think I’ll side with Rose, Brown, Glendinning and Checa.