February has been a very stormy month, here and elsewhere. The storms have rolled through, coming up from south of us or in off the sea. I’m glad I can watch them pass from the safety of our apartment, while our boat sits – safe too, but rocked by the waves and wind – at a dock not too far away.
And I think about the fact that the same storm can feel completely different to different people. So much depends on where you are and what resources you have. I’ve experienced bad storms tucked safely away inside a sturdy building. I’ve also experienced them out at sea in our sailboat, surrounded by the noise and turmoil of waves and wind.
Goya, too, knew how different the same storm could feel to different people. And he wanted other people to know. That’s why his picture of Winter is not of some beautiful, snow-filled landscape but of people struggling through a winter storm.
You can tell how cold it is. Three of the men huddle together as they walk, blankets or shawls wrapped tightly around their heads and their thin coats. Their heads are down, their arms wrapped around themselves, their faces grim. You can see snow on their clothes, on their leggings; you can almost see them shiver. The poor dog beside them, tail between his legs, looks as if it would rather be somewhere else, somewhere warm and out of the wind.
These three men are empty-handed, returning home with nothing to show for all their work. No wonder they look so grim and tired.
The other two walk independently. They are dressed more warmly: one has his head covered with a hood of the same material as his coat; the other has tied his hat on so that it shelters his face from the wind-driven snow. They have been hunting, and their hunt has been successful – one has a gun, the other leads a pack animal, a horse or a mule, with the carcass of a pig tied across it’s back. Wherever they are going these men will be well fed, and probably warm.
The painting is a sketch painted by Goya, the design for a tapestry to hang in the dining-room of the Pardo palace near Madrid in Spain. It’s one of a series of four depicting the seasons. So there is a third layer here – those who gazed at the stormy cold of the tapestry would be warm and comfortable themselves.
And people would gaze at it; Goya has made it beautiful. No doubt he hoped at least some would see beyond its beauty, beyond the richness of the colors and the skillful use of technique, to the differences between these two groups caught out in the storm. Maybe they would compare what they saw with their own lives.
Because Goya himself saw these things. In many ways he was unusual, a tempestuous man who lived in stormy times, though his life started conventionally enough. Born in Spain in 1746, he spent his early years in Fuendetodos before his family moved to Zaragoza, where he began to study art at fourteen. From there he moved to Madrid to study more, then spent time in Rome before returning to Spain and to Zaragoza.
Despite his talent and growing skill, he found it hard to find work as an artist when he came back. Then he became part of the Bayeu family when he married Josefa, sister to the artists Francisco and Ramon. Her brothers were working at the Spanish court, and through them Goya was offered work painting designs for tapestries for two newly-built royal palaces. He went on to be a court painter and to paint for the nobility – though he broke from the courtly tradition by painting portraits of people as they were, not as they wished to be seen.
His later work was touched by an illness that left him deaf, less communicative and more introspective, and his fortunes fluctuated with changes at the court and the effects of wars and revolution, particularly the war between France and Spain. In his later work there’s anger, a sense of pain and despair, and a recognition of the ironies in life.
Because through it all he continued to work, to share his thoughts about difficult things and tragic events in stark and beautiful paintings and dark prints. Beauty has its limitations, though. Some of his paintings and drawings I find very difficult to look at. The horror overpowers the beauty.
But not the compassion. He understood that the storms of life can blow most cruelly when we are least equipped to deal with them.
A compassion we all should share.