Did Francisco de Goya really make one of the National Gallery's best-known paintings? Curators reveal X-rays

| 05 September 2015 | Updated: 04 September 2015

Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel has long been heralded as one of Goya’s most dazzling portraits and is one of the most striking, recognisable and admired paintings in the National Gallery. But some scholars have recently cast doubts over the attribution of the picture

An image of a painting of a young 19th century Spanish woman, Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel, thought to be by Francisco de Goya at the National Gallery
Doña Isabel de Porcel© National Gallery, London
The National Gallery’s current exhibition, Goya: The Portraits, includes around 70 works unquestionably by his hand. Is this portrait really one of them?

In Room 1, curators have put together historical information surrounding the portrait and its acquisition in 1896, together with technical evidence, including an X-ray image which reveals an earlier portrait painted underneath.  

Who was Doña Isabel de Porcel?

The sitter has long been identified as Doña Isabel Lobo de Porcel on account of an inscription on the back of the original canvas. Goya exhibited a portrait of de Porcel in Madrid in 1805, and this has traditionally been linked to the National Gallery painting.

Isabel married Antonio Porcel (Secretary of State for Spain’s American Colonies) in 1802 and the couple had four children. Isabel died in 1842, surviving her husband by ten years.

Antonio, who was a political associate of Goya’s friend and patron Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (whose portrait can be seen in Goya: The Portraits), was also painted by Goya in 1806, but his portrait was destroyed by fire in 1953.

The National Gallery’s purchase

An image of a painting of a young 19th century Spanish woman, Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel, thought to be by Francisco de Goya at the National Gallery, shown in black and white x-ray scan
An X-ray image of the painting© National Gallery, London
The gallery bought Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel in June 1896 for just over £404. It was among the first pictures by the artist - and the very first portrait by Goya - to enter the collection, having made its first Goya purchases (A Picnic and A Scene from ‘The Forcibly Bewitched’) the previous month.

The portrait was no longer owned by the sitter’s descendants when it was acquired, having been sold by the Porcel y Zayas family from Granada, in whose possession it had apparently remained until around 1887, to Don Isidro de Urzáiz Garro, who died in 1894. It was from the latter’s heir, Andrés de Urzáiz, that it was bought about 10 years later.

A question of attribution

The glamorous sitter is shown wearing a black lace mantilla, a traditional headdress which became fashionable among the Spanish aristocracy in the late 18th century.

Although painted with tremendous flair, the picture’s brushwork – when compared with Goya’s other portraits – lacks his customary subtlety in describing transparencies and textures.

Isabel is extremely charismatic but we struggle to grasp her psychological state – something in which Goya invariably excelled.

The Hidden Portrait

An image of a painting of a young 19th century Spanish woman, Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel, thought to be by Francisco de Goya at the National Gallery, shown in black, red and white x-ray scan
An XRF image of the painting© National Gallery, London and Delft University of Technology
When an X-ray image was made of the Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel during conservation treatment in 1980, another portrait was unexpectedly found underneath.

The head and striped jacket of the underlying figure are clearly visible in the X-ray, and Doña Isabel de Porcel was painted directly on top of the initial portrait, without first hiding it with new priming.

Although perhaps surprising, this is not unique in Goya’s work. During the period of political upheaval in Spain at the turn of the 19th century, Goya – and other artists – had to be resourceful and adapt to circumstance, recycling canvases as their patrons fell in and out of political favour.

Doña Isabel de Porcel must have been painted soon after the underlying portrait, since no dirt is visible between the paint layers of the two figures. A clearer image of the underlying portrait has recently been obtained by using an X-ray fluorescence scanning spectrometer, a cutting-edge piece of analytical technology on loan to the gallery through collaboration with the Delft University of Technology, which maps the chemical elements in the paint.

“Goya is one of the most admired and imitated painters in the history of art,” says Letizia Treves, the Curator of Italian and Spanish Paintings 1600-1800, who calls the display a “unique opportunity”.

“Pastiches and forgeries of his works proliferated on the European and American art market in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“The technical studies and provenance information regarding the Portrait of ‘Doña Isabel de Porcel’ are inconclusive so far as Goya’s authorship is concerned, and the attributional status of the painting rests largely on perceptions of quality and on how close it comes to works that are indisputably by the artist.

“If it is a pastiche, it has been carried out with such impressive skill that its long-standing attribution to Goya has convinced several generations of specialists and gallery visitors.”

  • Goya: The Portraits is at the National Gallery from October 7 2015 – January 10 2016. Book tickets online.

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Three exhibitions to see great portraits at

City Art Centre, Edinburgh
Wall to Wall: Scottish Art from the Collection is the first significant showing of the centre's collection, containing more than 4,500 works, since 2011.

National Portrait Gallery, London
Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon illustrates the life of the actress and fashion icon.

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery
In the Frame: Plymouth's Portraits Revealed delves more deeply into Plymouth's portrait collection and presents new research into some of the characters that are new or rarely seen.
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