updated: 22/09/2008

C18th makeups: the duchess of Alba

María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Álvarez de Toledo (1762–1802), 13th duchess of Alba, was renowned for her beauty, charm and wilfulness – and her rumoured relationship with Franciso de Goya. There were also rumours that she was poisoned by the queen, by whom she was undoubtedly hated, which were only disproved in 1945 when, at the request of the Alba family, her body was exhumed and autopsied.

She has been alleged to have been the model for the Maja – two paintings of the same woman by Francisco José de Goya, one of which has been described as ‘the first purely profane, life-sized female nude in Western art’. Unsurprisingly, the Alba family have consistently rubbished the suggestion, and the most recent biography of Goya has also rejected the theory. It seems more likely that the model was Pepita Tudó (Josefa Petra Francisca de Paula de Tudó y Cathalán, Alemany y Luecia) who was the mistress of the Spanish Prime Minister, Manuel de Godoy, who was the first recorded owner of both paintings.

Curiously, for a website on makeup, one of Goya’s earliest references to the duchess, recorded in a surviving letter, describes how she persuaded him to do her makeup: ‘the Alba woman, who yesterday came to the studio to make me paint her face, and she got her way; I certainly enjoy it more than painting on canvas, and I still have to do a full-length portrait of her’.

Whatever, the duchess was clearly exceptional amongst aristocratic Spanish women of the time, and has been described as ‘the first lady of the realm’ after the queen:

She was without question one of the most beautiful women in Spain – a fact noted by nearly every man who met and wrote about her. She was tall, slender, with flashing dark eyes and a fine-boned face – perhaps a little too long for modern tastes – surmounted by a mop of thick, dark curls… If the word existed in the eighteenth century, she would have been formidably hip – what else could an aristocratic maja wish to be? (Robert Hughes Goya)

Volavérunt (1999): Based on a historical novel about romantic misadventures in the court of King Carlos IV and the background to those paintings by Goya. Aitana Sánchez-Gijón was awarded the Silver Shell as Best Actress at the 1999 San Sebastian Film Festival for her performance as the duchess of Alba. Lourdes Briones and Paillette (Jacques Maistre ) were credited for makeup.

Goya en Burdeos (1999): Perhaps this movie should have been called Goya’s Ghosts; eighty-two-year-old Franciso de Goya, living in exile in Bordeaux, reconstucts the main events of his life for his daughter Rosario, remembering his only true love, the duchess of Alba (Maribel Verdú), a woman who changed both Goya and the history of her times, and whose life was cut short by the poison of conspiracy. José Quetglás was key makeup artist; Blanca Sánchez was key hair stylist; Susana Sánchez was makeup artist.

Goya (1985): A mini-series biopic featuring Laura Morante as the duchess of Alba. José Antonio Sánchez was responsible for characterisation and wigs.

The Naked Maja (1958): Ava Gardner, who played the duchess described it as ‘a better title than a film’ – elsewhere it has been described as ‘the most inept movie biography since Cecil B DeMille tore Cleopatra from the pages of history’ and ‘an almost incredible hodge-podge’. It was ill-starred from the beginning: Ava was still recovering from surgery to repair a facial injury from a drunken fall in a Spanish bullring; she participated only reluctantly to complete her contractual commitment to MGM; production had to be moved to Italy after the Alba family persusaded Franco to ban the movie-makers from Spain. Franco Freda, Alfio Meniconi, Alma Santoli & Euclide Santoli were the makeup artists.