by Elizabeth Franklin Lewis, University of Mary Washington, March 2013
In an engraving by Francisco Goya titled “La caridad de una muger” (The Charity of a Woman), part of his series “Desastres de la Guerra” (1810-1815), which depicted suffering of the Spanish people during the war with Napoleonic France, the artist presents us with the image of a charitable lady, but with an ambivalence that is typical of his style. We see a group of suffering figures in the center of the scene, who have supposedly received “charity” in the form of food from a lady, almost hidden in the shadows in the background, whose servant (back to the viewer) is distributing the food. Beside the lady we see a friar, almost imperceptible in the darkness, but observing with the lady that pitiful scene. What does “The Charity of a Woman” mean? This is the question that Goya presents us—something that encompasses all of the male anxieties of his time over women’s political desires and the modernizing impulses of a Spain that extended from the eighteenth century well into the twentieth. As Goya suggests in his engraving, we see in this question some central themes—the resolution of social problems, the political position of women in Spain, feminine sensibility and sentimentalism, and the extremely complicated role of religion in Spanish society. Although we may question the motives and interpretations of Goya in this picture, surely the artist perceived a connection between women and charity that women would recognize as important for themselves as well as for the modernization of Spain.
Eighteenth-century notions of charity in Spain were heavily influenced by its deep Catholic tradition, in which charity, or caritas, was held up as one of the tenets of religious faith. Nonetheless, the topic of charity and its related subjects began to take on social and political significance in Spain, at the same time that it became more associated with virtue and sentiment and less with spiritual duty. During this shift from a more religious-based notion of charity to the more secular and civic-minded of beneficence, women asserted themselves as important actors in the social and economic reforms that were the object of Enlightenment-style caridad. Their very political actions and writings at the end of the Enlightenment period in Spain firmly claimed charity as a means of social action for women, which would continue to be a hallmark of women’s important role in Spanish society for a century, and exalted by both conservatives and liberals.
Our exhibit begins in 1786, when the Royal Economic Society of Madrid began debating the possible admission of women into their membership, supported by member Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos in his Discurso published in the Memorial Literario. The polemic was very heated on both sides, as men and women argued over women’s supposed sentimental nature and their inherent charitableness–qualities exalted in Goya’s tender scene of the Duchess of Alba with her adopted daughter. The controversy was solved when King Charles III created the first women’s civic organization in Spain, the Junta de Damas, an auxiliary group to the all-male Economic Society that immediately undertook several charitable projects fundamental to Spain’s economic and political stability. Member of the Junta, Maria Cepeda, spoke of the importance of the group’s projects in her Elogio dedicated to Queen Maria Luisa of Borbon; while author María Rosa Gálvez dedicated her “Oda a la Beneficencia” to another member of the Junta, her cousin the Countess of Castroterreño. . These women lay the groundwork for a century and a half of women’s charitable work and writings about the social and political importance of women’s charity in Spanish society.