IN 1824, Ferdinand VII, lately freed from prison with French help and returned to the Spanish throne, was a vengeful despot. The Inquisition was restored, liberals were rounded up.
When a temporary amnesty was announced, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, court painter, friend to too many free thinkers, applied to take the waters at Plombières, in France.
He headed for Bordeaux, not even bothering to stop at Plombières, then went on to Paris, where he spent the summer. He was stone deaf and didn't speak a word of French. If he saw Delacroix and Constable in the great Salon of 1824, he never mentioned it. Delacroix belonged to another generation. In September, Goya returned to Bordeaux and settled into the expatriate community.
And there he died, at 82, in 1828, attended by his companion, Locadia, a distant relative, with whom he reportedly fought all the time, and by her two children. The younger one, Rosario, is sometimes thought to have been Goya's daughter because he said nice things about her art. Goya didn't say many nice things about other artists.
There have been many Goya shows lately. He's a man for our day, the great, unflinching satirist of everything irrational and violent and absurd in life and politics. "Goya's Last Works," at the Frick, differs from the large, rather loveless survey that veteran aficionados may remember that the Metropolitan Museum did some years ago. That exhibition tried to pigeonhole the artist as a symbol of Enlightenment values, draining the guts out of Goya. Look at the late work and you'll see, as Robert Hughes once nicely put it, that there's no less of the Marquis de Sade in him than there is of Rousseau.
The compact Frick show is sublime. An early French biographer, Laurent Matheron, writing about Goya during his twilight in exile, blew off the late work as "feeble and slack." Matheron must have been blind, or saw pictures now lost. They're certainly not here. I can't recall too many exhibitions on this scale more revelatory.
The inspiration for it was one of the Frick's own Goyas, a deceptively fine portrait of a young woman, from 1824, the sort of painting you might miss if you weren't looking closely. The curators, Jonathan Brown and Susan Grace Galassi, decided to spotlight it, and the show naturally grew, but not too much, to include other late works.
It has sometimes been said that the sitter for the Frick portrait is Rosario, which isn't too likely since she was 36, and the young woman, flushed, expectant, childishly calm, doesn't look a day over 26. Prim in white gloves and a black dress trimmed in lace, she is swiftly painted in dashing, creamy strokes that pay homage to Goya's hero, Velázquez, at the same time that they bring to mind Manet. He's the automatic association today, Manet having passed on to posterity the look of "modern" painting inherited straight from Goya.
For comparison's sake, the curators borrowed other late portraits. Goya could be a perfunctory artist, and two clunky portraits of Spaniards in Paris, Joaquín María de Ferrer and his wife, seem lifeless: diffident commissions. But then Goya also painted Don Tiburcio Pérez y Cuervo, an architect, shirt sleeves rolled up, arms folded, smiling slightly, resembling Goya as a young man. The best portraits have an intimate bond with the sitters.
The strongest bond comes across in the one of his old pal Leandro Fernández de Moratín. A poet and playwright, Moratín sat for Goya in the 1790's, when he was lean and suave. Now he's puffy and middle aged, his face built up with thick, puttylike slabs of pigment. He has the tense expression of someone who knows his portraitist will be brutally honest but who is himself a believer in truth and in the artist, and whose forbearance therefore makes him look heroic and humane. Only the savviest, most mature painter could manage to convey all that.
But then, more than 30 years earlier, Goya had already sketched a portrait of himself after a bout with death that cost him his hearing; in it he's Beethoven with Medusa's hair, all wary introspection and defiance. That drawing is in the show, as a kind of prelude for the self-portrait from 1820, painted after another illness during which Goya was attended by a friend, a doctor named Eugenio García Arrieta. In gratitude Goya portrayed them both, as an ex-voto, inscribed with elaborate thanks. Arrieta supports his ailing patient and holds up a glass of medicine. Eyes glazed, head lolling, Goya clutches his bedsheets (the gesture speaks volumes) while behind him, as if straight from his fevered brain, a noisome coven of figures, like the Fates, lurks in the shadows.
By that point, decades of violence and political calamity along with his own physical suffering had reinforced in Goya a hermetic, almost hallucinatory despair — an outlook on the world that, the portraits of his friends aside, pervaded the late work. Mankind was not inherently good, rational and free, manacled and corrupted only by tyranny and circumstance. Society was a surging mob of lost souls, hysterics and murderers. The most shocking picture in the show may be a little keepsake that Goya dashed off before quitting Madrid. It's of his son, Javier, a wastrel, whom Goya loved anyway. He is drawn as fat and dissolute, a lost soul staring vacantly. With Goya, truth trumped love. But life was still worth living to the very last minute, if only for the reason that Goya scrawled across a sketch of a hunchbacked Methuselah: "I Am Still Learning."
He was. Nearly 80, he took up lithography in Bordeaux, making prints of bullfights in the workshop of Cyprien Gaulon — Goya's portrait of whom, all velvety touch and measured nobility, turns him, like Moratín, into a romantic hero.
Bullfight scenes didn't appeal to the French, but lithography inspired Goya to draw with black crayon, another new medium for him. His Bordeaux drawings bring to mind diary entries. He spotted a roller skater, head tossed, on the verge of toppling backward, alongside a bicyclist. He saw a woman crammed into a shoulder carriage, like a giant backpack with a little window, being lugged by a stooped porter. And he noticed an amputated beggar, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, in a huge contraption of a wheelchair that, like a chariot, enclosed him between its two great front wheels, making a triangle of the composition.
He also visited a madhouse in Bordeaux and drew a lunatic, a monstrous figure, wearing a loose sack, twisting like a Michelangelo slave, his arms behind him, his legs buckling, his head a gnarled mass of thatched hair and knotty bone. A single, haunted eye swivels into the man's skull. As Mr. Hughes put it in his Goya biography, the eye was a stroke of genius by "an old man who had suffered immensely and known every last terror of black melancholy."
And then there is the imploring penitent on his knees, maybe another of the madhouse inmates, although his pose, arms raised, is like the famous patriot's before the firing squad in "The Third of May."
It's hard not to see him and all the other old men in these late works as implicit self-portraits. They're fools, donning bat wings, moving herky-jerky before women invariably more graceful and powerful than they are. A dwarfish constable clutching a set of keys beseeches a young beauty wearing a giant padlock. He's a thwarted Romeo. A groaning, half-naked old man, pinioned by a woman, has the devil on his back. Even a flying beast, part Icarus, part Cerberus, with webbed feet, crashing to earth — one of Goya's classic nightmare inventions — seems to symbolize man's hubris and impotence.
I don't mean artistic impotence, of course, not with Goya, who tried his hand at yet one more new medium in Bordeaux. He painted on palm-size slivers of ivory — "original miniatures, which I have never seen the like of before," he boasted, rightly. On a dark, wet ground, he let fall a drop or two of water, whose blots and granulates suggested shapes, like the ones that Leonardo imagined in stains on old walls.
Goya conjured up a screaming monk and a goggle-eyed woman. A man picking fleas. Judith hacking off the head of Holofernes. A nude reclining, paint wiped from the ivory to connote flesh. And Susannah ogled by the elders, the standard fable of chaste youth and pathetic, dirty old men.
Broad fields of light and dark make these ivories like flashbulb snapshots. Immediate and exquisite, they're nearly monumental. Like the late works of Titian or Rembrandt, Goya's late works achieve a whole new level of freedom and depth, haunted by death but exalted. The Frick has picked for the show's poster the perfect image: one of the creepier Bordeaux drawings of a thick and stumpy old man on a swing, leering as he vaults skyward.
You can almost hear Goya cackle.