The Tobacco Guards1780. Oil on canvas, 262 x 137 cm.
In October 1777, Goya received a commission to paint 20 cartoons for tapestries intended to decorate the walls of the Prince and Princess of Asturias´s bedchamber and its anteroom in the palace of El Pardo, north of Madrid, while he was completing designs of other tapestries for their dining room. This would be the third set of cartoons commissioned from the young Goya and proposed by Anton Raphael Mengs, first painter to the king and director of the decoration of his palaces. The artist was charged with creating original compositions depicting the contemporary life of Madrid and its surrounding areas. Goya had to rework some of the initial cartoons due to complaints from the weavers at the Royal Tapestry Manufactory regarding the variety of colours he had used, as they found it impossible to translate onto the tapestry the same richness and nuances of colour.The tobacco guards, from this series, entered the Prado from the repository of cartoons in the Royal Palace in Madrid. Goya depicted extraordinarily varied subjects, including washerwomen, vendors, bullfighters, people at play, street musicians, children, and other characters, to represent the life of common folk in Enlightenment-era Spain, bringing together diverse social classes in accordance with the political outlook of Charles III. The artist delivered this cartoon on 24 January 1779 and described the scene simply in his invoice, although the image itself reveals a critical tone that is not apparent in the artist´s words: It represents five tobacco guards, two seated, at rest and one standing, engaged in conversation with them. Situated apart from them, there are two others, surveying the area, on a riverbank; two are seen with the weapons they typically carry .In eighteenth-century Spain, the State had a monopoly on trade in tobacco. Imported from Havana, it was made into cigarettes and snuff in the Royal Tobacco Factory in Seville, and then distributed to other parts of Spain. The shipments traversed dangerous areas, such as the mountainous regions separating Andalusia from Castile, where bandits and smugglers often seized the valuable cargo. The high price of tobacco in Spain encouraged smugglers from Portugal and Gibraltar, against whom the tobacco guards kept watch. Nevertheless, in the struggle against banditry and smuggling, at times the guards in charge of pursuing outlaws or protecting shipments worked in collusion with the criminals, a subject of interest in popular literature of the time, which viewed law enforcers as rather ineffective.With its arrogant masculine protagonists, The tobacco guards -like the cartoon from the same series depicting a training fight with a young bull for novice bullfighters, The Young Bulls (P787)- stands in contrast to the scenes featuring female figures, such as The washerwomen (P786) and The swing (P785), which hung in the same room opposite the tapestries featuring men. In this painting, Goya presents the swaggering tobacco guards in a not terribly reassuring light, with their comfortable travelling uniforms and weapons that recall the appurtenances of smugglers. Their facial expressions, described realistically, are also not very reassuring and perfectly capture their different personalities. The guard who is standing smiles puckishly, directing the viewer´s gaze with his hand to what his companion in the foreground is up to, furtively hiding something, it would seem, under his jerkin, and we can only imagine that it is some stolen tobacco. The guard in the background appears to be watching, complicitous. Goya returned to the theme of the corrupt tobacco guards in the eleventh etching from the Caprichos series, Lads making ready (Muchachos al avío), a satire against smugglers and their proximity to defenders of the law (Mena, M.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 180).