The Pottery Vendor1778 - 1779. Oil on canvas, 259 x 220 cm.
This canvas belongs to the series of 20 cartoons for tapestries commissioned from Goya by Anton Raphael Mengs in October 1777. They depict scenes from contemporary life and were designed for the bedchamber (and its anteroom) of the Prince and Princess of Asturias in the palace of El Pardo. The cartoon for The pottery vendor entered the Museo del Prado in 1870 from the repository of cartoons in the Royal Palace in Madrid. Goya described it in his invoice from 6 January 1779 for the Royal Tapestry Manufactory in the following terms: [...] a Valencian man selling crockery; two ladies, seated, choosing what to purchase; a seated old woman doing the same; on one side two gentlemen seated on a pile of round mats watching a coach pass by, in the front part of which a lady may be seen inside, with two footmen and another servant riding behind, and a coachman on his driver´s seat; further in the distance are various people and buildings.It is almost certainly one of the four paintings that the king and the prince and princess saw once it was finished, according to a letter Goya sent to his friend Martín Zapater on 9 January: If I were in less haste, I would tell you all about how the king and the prince and princess honoured me, to whom by the grace of God I was able to show four paintings, and I kissed their hands; for I have never been so fortunate before, and, I say, I could not have hoped for them to be better pleased with my works, to judge by the delight they took in seeing them and the satisfaction expressed by the king and even more so by their Royal Highnesses the prince and princess.The complexity of the scene has led to it being interpreted as an allegory or as a moral lesson. First of all, there is the idea of vanitas, in which case the painting would be a metaphor for the instability of earthly things and the inexorable passage of time, expressed in the contrast between the young women and the old crone or in the fragility of the ceramic dishes. The work has also been read as a critique of prostitution, according to which the old woman is a gobetween offering the young women at the fair, and the fragility of the dishes would therefore be evocative of female virtue.Goya, however, clearly describes the characters and their attitudes and conversations in his invoice, in which he refers to the young women as ladies, a designation supported by the evidence of their elegant dress; while their companion is an old woman from the village. In the background, another woman appears in homely clothing, indicating her humble origins; while in the coach there is another lady, in this case clearly a member of the aristocracy, accompanied by footmen and a driver wearing the sumptuous livery of a noble household. Through his presentation of this diversity of social types, including that of the pottery vendor, Goya has conjured up the universalising character of the popular festival, once again as a kind of metaphor for humanity, and he has represented the unfulfilled desires of each of the characters. All of them confront something they cannot have: the poor folk in the background cannot buy any of the goods; the young woman in the foreground pensively touches the bowl in her hands (which, like those on the ground, is of modern manufacture, from Manises or Alcora), in a gesture that suggests she would like to own the set of crockery the vendor is offering her; the two gentlemen with their backs toward us seated on humble straw mats, a symbol of the vanity of things, likewise desire the unattainable lady passing by in the swift coach; while she, finally, imprisoned in her carriage and accompanied by a man dressed in black, perhaps a priest, watches with an air of melancholy the cheerfulness of the fair, from which she is forbidden. Only the old woman, firmly gripping her earthenware dish, seems content with what she has (Mena, M.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 182).