In 1823, only five years before his life would come to an end, Spanish artist Francisco de Goya painted a portrait of a distinguished gentleman named Don Ramón Satué.
In the portrait, Señor Satué stands casually in a white collared shirt that is unbuttoned to a degree that would impress an off-the-clock banker on the train back home to New Jersey. The pasty white “v” of his chest disappears beneath his black vest and red waistcoat, while his hands are slipped nonchalantly into the pockets of his black trousers.
The figure of the former high judge in Castile stands at an angle to the canvas, but his head is turned to look directly at the viewer in a gaze that is straightforward and challenging.
Don Ramón doesn’t look like a squirrely man who has anything to hide, which is, in fact, the best attitude to take when you are in possession of a secret.
Don Ramón kept his secret for nearly 200 years, until 2011, when a new x-ray technology allowed experts to take a closer look at the Spanish justice.
They discovered that beneath the casually dapper gent lurks another man, one affiliated with the elite of the insurgent rule of the Bonapartes. There’s a chance, in fact, that the man is Joseph Bonaparte himself, the brother of Napoleon who was installed as the new ruler of Spain after the French took over the country during the Peninsular War in the early-19th century.
While America may be more divided than ever leading up to the midterm elections as both parties fight to define the country, the political stakes Goya faced in turbulent 1800s Spain were even more harrowing.
He not only had to worry about the effects of his own political beliefs, but also about what the revolving door of rulers in his day would think about his work for previous regimes.
Until the end of his life when he decided to play it safe and go into exile in France, the painter had navigated this minefield pretty well. But in at least one instance, scholars believe he did so by engaging in a little self-censorship.
A few years after the reinstated Spanish royal family had returned to air out their castle and fluff their throne pillows following Joseph Bonaparte’s occupation, Goya took a look at the portrait he had painted of a high-ranking French military officer and thought, “Yep, I better destroy that evidence.” He did so in the way he knew best—with his paintbrush.
During his lifetime, Goya became known as one of the greatest Spanish painters, and he would eventually be dubbed the “first modern artist” to come out of the country.
A largely self-taught painter, Goya was twice rejected entrance to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Since a formal education seemed out of reach, he decided to teach himself by studying the European masters and taking jobs that would help him develop his skills, like painting religious works at local churches and creating scenes for use by tapestry factories.
Today, Goya is best known for his depictions of the gruesome horror and violence of war. His revolutionary portrayal of this subject matter gained him a reputation for being a bit dark and twisted, with his unflinching depictions of blood and gore as well as the universal cruelty perpetrated by both sides of conflict. There were no heroes or glorified victors in his "The Disasters of War" series or his take on the Greek myth of Saturn Devouring His Son.
But while these works may have cemented Goya’s place in the history books, the mainstay of his career was portrait-painting. Goya didn’t paint his first portrait until the age of 37 (though he dabbled in self-portraiture prior to that), but once he began to accept sitters, this body of work would establish him as an artist to be reckoned with.
There are 160 portraits by Goya that exist today, and they are thought to make up a full third of the painter’s oeuvre.
Goya painted a range of leading figures and creative luminaries of his day, and as his reputation grew, he caught the attention of the royal family. In 1786, he was named painter to the king under Charles III, and in 1789, that title was upgraded to court painter under Charles IV.
“His greatest strength as a portraitist is that regardless of the status of the sitter, be they a king and queen, the Duke of Wellington or a doctor or writer, it was the person he showed first and their position second,” Michael Prodger wrote in the Guardian. “It was this trait, most apparent in his royal portraiture, that has led him to be seen as satirising the Bourbon monarchy rather than as a painter who depicted what he saw without showing obeisance to the usual flattering conventions.”
In 1807, war broke out between Spain and France. What started as a fight for Portugal soon turned as Napoleon’s army invaded its adversary.
At the time of Napoleon’s invasion, it’s unclear where Goya's political allegiances lay. When he took an oath of loyalty to Joseph Bonaparte on December 23, 1808, scholars are unsure if he did so out of self preservation or a true feeling of support.
Either way, during Bonaparte’s five-year rule of Spain, Goya did his job as a portraitist and painted the elite French transplants in Madrid. Unconfirmed rumors have always swirled that he also painted a portrait or two of the usurper himself.
Which is just one of the reasons why the discovery of the man behind Satué was so intriguing.
In 2011, Joris Dik of Delft University and Koen Janssens of Antwerp University revealed a new x-ray technology that they had developed. In essence, their machine is able to scan works of art to evaluate the pigments in each of the layers of paint, and then create a digital recreation of what it finds.
“With this new mobile scanner we can simply go to a museum and analyse a painting layer for layer. This way we can reveal the different paint layers and colors underneath the visible image, without damaging the painting,” Dik explained in a press release announcing the invention.
For years, experts had suspected that there was more to Goya’s "Portrait of Don Ramón Satué" in the Rijksmuseum collection then met the eye. But they hadn’t been able to investigate their hunch without destroying the existing painting. When the new x-ray technology was ready for its inaugural run, Dik knew that Goya’s painting would be the perfect guinea pig.
While it is impossible to create an exact replica of the underlying portrait, enough details were parsed out to give scholars a good idea of the hidden sitter. The man is seated in a much more formal pose than Don Ramón, and he is wearing full French military dress of the highest order.
But one of the most intriguing finds is that pinned to his red officer’s coat is a five-pointed red star that was the designation of the highest level of the Orden Real de España instituted by Joseph Bonaparte.
According to Burlington Magazine, when both the military uniform and the elite star are factored in, there are only 16 candidates for who the mystery sitter could be, one of whom is Joseph Bonaparte.
Whether this is, in fact, the illusive Goya portrait of Bonaparte that has been whispered about cannot be known for certain; but what is known is that the canvas once held a depiction of one of the highest French officers in Spain, and that, just over 10 years later, its existence would be highly dangerous for the painter.
Following the reinstallment of the Bourbon family to the throne in 1814, Ferdinand VII conducted an inquiry into the behavior of Goya during the time of the Bonapartes and ended up clearing his name. Bonaparte resumed his role as court painter, and all continued as if the Bonapartes had never reigned.
But this time, Goya didn’t keep quite so quiet about his own political beliefs. Towards the end of the decade when liberal revolutionaries faced off against the Spanish monarchy, Goya made his thoughts known. Given his already seditious support for the liberal movement, the discovery of the French military portrait in his possession could have spelled disaster.
“If possession of the portrait of a high-ranking French or afrancesado officer may have been little more than embarrassing in 1814, nine years later, in 1823—the date of the Ramón Satué—it would have been positively dangerous,” reads the piece in The Burlington Magazine.
“The portrait of a Bonaparist officer wearing the highest Josephine decoration—one whose identity would quite possibly have been recognized—could not have been perceived as anything but compromising if found in his possession.”
But covering his tracks with the lovey Portrait of Don Ramón Satué (which the Burlington authors call “one of the masterpieces of his final years”) proved to not be enough.
The year after the new portrait was painted directly on top of the old, Goya went into hiding at the house of Don Ramón’s brother, and then moved to France to spend the last four years of his life.