Over his long association with Spanish royalty – Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) worked under four monarchies, first starting in 1774 – Goya painted numerous royal portraits.  Among those he most often portrayed was the Duchess of Alba (1761-1802).

After her husband died in 1796, the Duchess retreated in mourning to a residence outside Cadiz, Spain. In his role as royal painter, Goya joined her there from July 1797 to March 1798.

Rumors of romantic involvement between the Duchess and Goya haven’t stopped since.

Francisco Goya.  The Duchess of Alba, 1797.  Oil on canvas, 6' 10 1/2" by 4' 10 1/6".  The Hispanic Society of America, New York.

Francisco Goya.  The Duchess of Alba, 1797.  Oil on canvas, 6′ 10 1/2″ by 4′ 10 1/6″.  The Hispanic Society of America, New York.

This speculation is fueled by ambiguity in the portrait itself:

– the inscription on the ground to which she points are the words – only exposed after a modern cleaning – “Solo Goya”, or “Only Goya”;

– on her right hand are two rings, one reading “Alba” and the other “Goya”; and

– the painting was in Goya’s personal possession at the time of his death.

Francisco de Goya.  The White Duchess, 1795.  Oil on canvas, 6' 4 1/2" by 4' 3 1/4".  The Alba Collection, Madrid.

Francisco de Goya.  The White Duchess, 1795.  Oil on canvas, 6′ 4 1/2″ by 4′ 3 1/4″.  The Alba Collection, Madrid.

And, I’d add, this Duchess has some serious attitude. She’s oozes self-confidence.

Attired in the contemporary fashion of a maja and vieled in a black mantilla for mourning, the Duchess has an implacable expression, with a brazen stare at the viewer that feels almost like a dare. 

The Duchess, officially Dona Maria de Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva Alvarez de Toledo (1761-1802) was, in the hierarchy of Spanish society, directly after the Queen, Maria Luisa.  The widespread fame of her  beauty may be behind rumors that the Queen poisoned the Duchess, who died at 41; no evidence supports this allegation.

But speculation about a Duchess-Goya liaison can be readily countered by other theories:

-“Sola Goya” is the artist’s immodest proclamation that he alone was capable of capturing the Duchess’ spirit and beauty;

– the “Goya” and “Alba” rings were 19th century additions, according to some art historians; and

– Goya’s possession of the Duchess at his death may be merely because she rejected the portrait, or simply that Goya opted to keep it himself – it remains one of his most famous paintings today.

Maneula Mena is the Goya specialist at the Prado, home to the most extensive collection of Goya paintings; in her book, The Duchess of Alba, Goya’s Muse: Myth and History, she concludes that there was no romantic entanglement between the two.

Let’s put the alleged affair to rest, and see the Duchess of Alba for what it is: a masterful portrait evoking the personality, beauty, and social stature of one of Spain’s leading ladies.

Now that that’s resolved… what’s up with her fingerpointing?

More Goya paintings: see Goya’s portrait of The Family of Charles IV.  Explore an overview of his work to understand he is one of Spain’s most famous painters, still today.

Update: The present day Duchess of Alba – holder of more aristocratic titles than any other royalty – passed away on 20 November 2014.