“En una lacena tapeada de la possessor se han encontrado entre papeles mui interesantes lo sig.te Un retrato de la Rita-Luna, actriz del tiempo de Moratin....Guardado todo el ano 1818, segun los apuntes, sin saberse con q.eobjeto Goya [In a cupboard of the owner has been found amongst most interesting papers the following: a portrait of Rita Luna, actress of the time of Moratín…All put away in the year 1818, according to indications, without knowing for what reason. Goya]”1
The note describes other finds made in the same cache: a drawing of the Duke of Wellington (1812, London, British Museum, 18126.96.36.199); an etching after Las Meninas (London, British Museum, 18188.8.131.52); a mezzotint of the Colossus (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale A.3122) and a series of etchings of various bullfight scenes. The prints are then all priced for purchase; no sum, however, is given for the Rita Luna. The group as a whole was purchased by Carderera, who quickly disposed of the prints, but kept the portrait for his own collection (until 1877, see Provenance), where he described it as a “Retrato de la célebre actriz retratada de bastante edad. Busto solo [Portrait of the famous actress, portrayed at an advanced age. Bust only]2.”
Whatever the circumstances of its discovery (and although they smack of the dramatic, there seems no reason to doubt them), Goya’s pensive and enigmatic Portrait of Rita Luna dates to 1814-1818, in full accord with the probable date of its enclosure in the cupboard. It seems likely that it was kept by Goya for his own personal use. This is suggested not only by its size—it is small enough to be hidden away and undiscovered for some four decades— but also because of its somewhat unusual tone and temperament. It certainly does not relate closely to most of the other portraits the artist was producing at that moment. In 1814 the Bourbon monarchy had been restored and Goya had been called to paint its luminaries, not only King Ferdinand VII himself, but also members of the court. Most of these portraits were done in the grand style, expected of a court painter. However, the Rita Luna is more unusual. In some ways, not least in their small, nearly identical, sizes, it is closest to Goya’s Self-Portrait of circa 1815 (Museo Nacional de Prado, Madrid, inv.723)3. It is the directness and informality of the artist’s approach in the Rita Luna that is perhaps most appealing to modern sensibilities, a portrayal of an aging actress of waning powers, a human frailty that Goya understood and ruminated upon in many of his greatest works. The great pathos of this little painting has lead no less a connoisseur of Spanish painting than Alfonso Pérez Sánchez to mourn its departure from Spain.4
Rita Luna (1770-1832) was one of the most celebrated dramatic actresses of Goya’s day. She was born into a theatrical family in the provincial center of Málaga, but left to seek her fortune on the stages of Madrid when she was only nineteen. Soon after her arrival, she was noticed by the Conde de Floridablanca who convinced her to join the theatrical company of the Reales Sitios and then the Teatro del Príncipe. Her first major triumph was in La Esclava del Negro Ponto, attributed to Bruno Solo del Zaldívar; however her greatest success was from 1794 to 1804 in the title role in Vera Tessio de Villarol’s El Tiunfo de Judit. Contemporaries were fulsome in their praise of both her beauty and her abilities, noting that “expresaba con la misma verdad los afectos delicados que la pasiones Fuertes, las lástimas, los Dolores; que su voz era del más agradable timbre; Sonora, tan fácilmente modulable que la reducía hasta el suspíro [she expressed with the same truthfulness the most fragile affections and the strongest passions, feelings and sufferings; that her voice was of the most pleasant tone; sonorous, so easily changed that it could be diminished until no more than a sigh].” Despite her success, she retired from the stage in 1806 due to bouts of depression and other factors, moving to El Pardo, just north of the capital. Once she had done so, she seems to have gone about ridding herself of all evidence of her theatrical past. Years later, her cousin told Narciso Díaz de Escovar, a writer and journalist from Luna's native Málaga, that the actress had gone so far as to destroy another portrait of herself by Goya. The actress was painted in a country field, wearing a simple white dress, seated on a rustic chair next to a barking dog, with an inscription below reading : "Los perros ladran a la Luna porque non le pueden morder [Dogs bark at the moon because they are not able to bite it]." Although the painting is not otherwise recorded, the sensibility of the composition and the play on Luna's name certainly sound like Goya's.
1. The document is preserved in the print room of the British Museum and was acquired by them at the time that they purchased the drawing of the Duke of Wellington also mentioned in the document. It can be dated to about 1859, when Carderera mentioned that he was first shown by Mariano Goya one of the prints in the group (see V. Carderera, “François Goya—Sa vie, ses Dessins et ses Eaux-Fortes,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, vol. XV 1863, p. 248). The Moratín mentioned in the note is Leandro Fernández de Moratín (1760-1828), the playwright and one of the leading figures of the Spanish Enlightenment.
2. Viñaza (op.cit, p. 259)
3. The self-portrait is another version, somewhat larger, of a painting on panel by Goya, dated 1815 (Real Academia di San Fernando, Madrid).
4. In his preface to the exhibition catalogue of Goya en las Colecciones Madrileñas, held at the Prado, 1983, p. 10.
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