'It’s always a special moment when you see something for real that you’ve studied'

Self-Portrait, 1815, by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828), 18in by 14in, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

Moray MacLennan says:

I was taught History of Art by a painter. He had zero knowledge of the “history” bit, just the “art” bit. We learnt together. Irresponsible of the school, but fun. One day, we turned the page of the textbook onto this image. He was silent for a time and then said: “Just look.” Later, when he had read the blurb, he added: “They didn’t need to tell us he was going deaf, you can see through the paint he’s cut off from the world.” I saw the painting in the Prado a decade later. It’s always a special moment when you see something for real that you’ve studied.

Moray MacLennan is CEO of advertising agency M&C Saatchi.

John McEwen comments on Self-Portrait:

Goya only began doing portraits in his thirties, but they would constitute a third of his output as a painter. He was appointed Deputy Director of the Spanish Royal Academy in 1785, Director of Painting in 1795 and Painter to the King in 1799.

As honest in his portraits as he was unorthodox in his ideas, he told his students: ‘There are no rules in painting. To make everyone study in the same way and follow the same path compulsorily seriously impedes the development of young people who practise this difficult art: an art which is nearer to the divine than any other, since it is concerned with everything God created.’

His son Javier later recalled: ‘He looked with veneration at Velázquez and Rembrandt, but above all he looked at Nature, whom he called his mistress.’ The year of that student address, 1792, a severe illness left him deaf for life, soon forcing him to resign his academic post.

This late portrait followed years of turbulence and war: the imposition of French rule under Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte and the reinstatement of the Spanish Ferdinand VII, whose repressive reign would soon force Goya into French exile. In April, he was finally cleared of collaboration with the Napoleonic regime. Similarly, the Inquisition withdrew its enquiry into five ‘obscene paintings’, one the famous Naked Maja.

With characteristic honesty, Goya portrayed himself understandably dishevelled—wig askew, grey hair showing, shirt disarranged—as he resigned himself to old age.