Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes
Oil on canvas
17 7/8 x 24 3/4 in. (45.4 x 62.9 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.71.01
Listen to Claire Barry, Director of Paintings Conservation Emerita at the Kimbell Art Museum discuss this work
On the artist and a change to the composition (2:11 minutes)
On cleaning this painting (2:04)
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746–1828)
Still Life with Woodcocks, 1808–12
by Claire Barry, director of conservation at the Kimbell Art Museum
On the artist and a change to the composition
Goya believed that painting was an art closer to the divine than any other since it represents that which God created. He didn’t believe that art academy regulations or that should be imposed on an art so noble as painting. For Goya, there could be no rules in painting and he worked with a brush, occasionally a palette knife, a small cane, or bamboo knives that he created. And I think his individual genius especially emerges in his more personal projects, such as the group of twelve still lifes that he made late in life, a powerful series of still lifes of dead animals, to which the Meadows Still Life with Woodcocks belongs.
In the course of working out the composition of Woodcocks, Goya made one important change, or pentimento. He painted out the head of a woodcock in the upper left, which has now become more visible after cleaning. This woodcock would have appeared just above the heads of the two woodcocks who are nestled together, interlocked in an intimate embrace at the time of their death. I think removing the head of the other woodcock has placed greater focus on the two woodcocks locked in embrace and it's hard for me to look at this detail without recalling the elaborate dance the male woodcock would go through to woo the female.
It’s very touching to see the way the two heads are nestled together, and when you look at the beak of the lower bird, it's almost as if the curved wing of the upper bird is nestling that beak. It's a very touching portrayal of these two birds almost entwined in an intimate moment and yet at the moment of their death. What I would like to suggest is that the pentiment—eliminating the head of the bird in the upper left—maybe led Goya to a more powerful composition in his portrayal of these two interlocked heads of woodcocks.
On cleaning the painting
In the early nineties, the painting was sent to me at the Kimbell Art Museum for cleaning. It was covered with a very discolored, natural resin varnish, which had really masked all the subtleties of the artist's palette. You can see from the feathers of the woodcock that they're really muted colors: grays, beiges, blacks, some peach, even some iridescent blue. The patterning of the woodcock feathers is really intricate sometimes striped. And a lot of those details and subtleties were masked by the discolored varnish, which tended to make all the tones look more monochromatic, and it also flattened the illusion of depth and recession. During cleaning, I removed a lot of overpaint from the upper right background, which gave the background a more opaque, less translucent, appearance. It also masked some old craquelure so that was removed. And because of the intricacy with the way Goya applied his impasto, sometimes using these staccato brushstrokes, I had to remove some of the varnish that was trapped within the interstices of the brushwork, using sometimes a very small brush or tool. But, as a result, I think we can see much more clearly the three-dimensional forms of the woodcocks, the sense of depth and recession in the painting, and especially the luminosity with which he portrays the woodcocks—the brilliant light reflecting from their round chests. More than every–anything, especially, I think cleaning has revealed the virtuosity of Goya’s brushwork. He remained very faithful to describing the characteristics of the woodcocks, but he did it in his own individual way with varied brushwork, an