NEW YORK -- ''Goya's Last Works" is a small show that leaves a huge impact. Featuring 50 pieces created by the Spanish master in the last years of his life, the exhibition is filled with vivacious examples of artistic innovation -- and an undying creative spirit.
Previously, scholars believed Goya's morbid Black Paintings from the early 1820s represented the coda to the artist's prolific oeuvre. While those works symbolize the gloomy dusk of the artist's creative life, the drawings, paintings, and prints on view at the Frick -- some made nearly a decade after the Black Paintings -- suggest a spectacular evening.
The show is full of sparkling compositions, made when Goya lived in exile in France. At the ripe old age of 78, fully deaf and unable to speak French, he fled the repressive regime of Spain's reactionary ruler, Ferdinand VII, for Bordeaux.
One particularly dazzling work in the show is ''Portrait of a Lady (Maria Martinez de Puga?)," made in 1824, the year that he left Spain. This stunning oil painting inspired co-curators Jonathan Brown and Susan Grace Galassi to organize the exhibition, the first ever devoted to Goya at the museum.
Like John Singer Sargent's Madame X, Goya's female subject, whom art historians have never definitively identified, is a compelling figure.
The freshness of her flushed cheeks, wide eyes, and smooth, ivory skin embodies the prime of young womanhood. The palpability of her youth as rendered by the septuagenarian Goya also suggests the artist's enduring creative energy. And his dramatic, nearly abstract brush strokes that make up the fabric of her sleeves add a layer of painterly dynamism.
Presented in the Frick's basement-level galleries, ''Goya's Last Works" features a number of tiny yet astonishing works. Some drawings are only 4 inches square. A set of miniature paintings measure as small as 2 inches square each. The low ceilings offer an appropriately intimate environment in which to view these smaller compositions.
Two diminutive self-portraits serve as early context for the later pieces. They convey Goya's changing self-perception -- and his ongoing experiments in draftsmanship. ''Self-Portrait With Three-Cornered Hat," a pen-and-ink drawing created with robust lines, depicts Goya at 41 with lively eyes. Beside it is the much graver ''Self Portrait After Illness of 1792-93," in which Goya has a pensive brow and wild, storm-cloud locks.
This portrait is often compared to iconic images of Ludwig van Beethoven. But a more appropriate comparison is to Rembrandt's somber self-portraits, rendered at various stages of life, from youthful to aged, offering insightful glimpses into how an artist's sometimes less-than-idealized mirror image can serve as fodder for formal and thematic experimentation.
Hung nearby is the moving oil painting ''Self-Portrait With Dr. Arrieta" (1820), a visual paean to the physician who treated the artist during his 1819 near-death experience. Goya casts himself as a ghostly figure, with a pallid face echoed by eerie phantomlike visages of background onlookers, enshrouded by shadows.
Not all the larger oil paintings have the same oomph, though. A pair of 1824 husband-and-wife oil portraits featuring Joaquin Maria de Ferrer, a wealthy, outspoken Spanish liberal, and his spouse are stiff and generic. Perhaps Goya's formality was appropriate for an expatriate patron and matron seeking societal respect abroad.
Much more intriguing, although remarkably smaller, are Goya's Bordeaux albums from 1824-1828. The portability of these hand-held notebooks and the easy maneuverability of the black crayon he used allowed for impromptu sketches of daily life in Bordeaux, where Goya spent his final four years.
These loose-handed line drawings focus on the outcasts and misfits of the port city. These include a legless beggar in a wooden wheelchair and a man carrying a woman in a backpack-like box on his back. Another drawing features a man about to fall on early roller skates, his hair streaming, his arms flailing, his face both afraid and exhilarated.
What these drawings share, beyond their imagery of the marginalized, are innovative forms of urban transportation improvised by the poor to carry themselves or, in the case of the backpack box, the wealthy. When seen together, these works collectively suggest Goya's appreciation for perseverance and inventiveness.
Goya's own innovative spirit shines through in a series of extraordinary miniature ivory paintings -- some echoing his Los Caprichos prints, as well as the Black Paintings-- showcased in a vitrine near the Bordeaux albums. Goya created these pocket-size works by darkening a tiny slab of ivory with carbon pigment. He then dropped water on the surfaces and created spontaneous compositions based on the random poolings. Some of these minuscule works offer up larger-than-life drama. ''Judith and Holofernes" (1824-25), for example, features the gruesome biblical tale of beheading, captured in a 4-by-3-inch square with full theatrical aplomb and gory detail.
Late in life, Goya was an early adopter of lithography. An imaginative set of lithographs from 1825, ''Bulls of Bordeaux," is confined, unfortunately, to a small upstairs gallery removed from the bulk of the exhibition.
In this space, intended as the show's last stop, viewers find theatrical scenes, like a fearless toreador riding a bull while slaying another with a sword. Remarkable in this work -- and echoed in the other prints in the series -- is Goya's use of illumination effects to spotlight the daring bullfighter and the fierce bulls against an abstract sea of faces. These images of unrestrained bravery and in-the-face-of-death bravado serve as a fitting end to a truly inspiring exhibition -- and life.