There’s a powerful sketch of himself done by Francisco Goya around 1826 when he was over eighty years old.  It’s a full-length drawing showing a very old man with a shock of white hair and a bushy beard that looks like as they belong to an Old Testament prophet.  The man is wearing a long robe and is supporting himself on two sticks as he emerges from deep shadows in the background.  His large eyes look out of the picture straight at you.

At the top right of the sketch, in neat writing, Goya has written ‘Aun aprendo’ – ‘I’m still learning’.

I was struck by the drawing and the title when I first saw them recently in a book called Art against despair, Images to restore hope, produced and published by The School of Life.  I was also struck by the words that the School produced to accompany the picture.  Perhaps I can quote them here in full.

‘When Spain’s greatest painter completed this drawing circa 1826, he was over 80 and had only two years to live.  He was almost totally deaf, his eyesight was failing and he couldn’t walk unaided.  But he had not given up.  He was still making great art, travelling, being read to, deepening his friendships and, most of all, looking.  Despite everything, as he wrote with heartbreaking defiance at the top of the page:  ‘Aun aprendo.’  (I am still learning).

What was he still learning?  Not so much about art; he knew most of what there was to know in that field.  He was learning the ostensibly simple but always elusive lessons that life insists on:  about forgiveness, the importance of courage, the need to appreciate the beauty of the world, saying yes again and again to the universe despite its horrors, making time for small children, the beauty of lemons and olives and the tenderness of dusk.

Such lessons are never complicated in themselves.  It’s the remembering and the feeling that’s hard.  Great art strives to convince us of what are, intellectually, very basic things:  love today, don’t lose yourself to grudges, don’t feel singled out by sadness, let joy overwhelm you, don’t be afraid, resist bitterness, care less of what others think.

The aged, hobbit-like Goya advancing towards us on his sticks has a twinkle in his eye.  He is indomitable.  He has come out of bed, even though cautious voices told him not to, because he wants another look at the world.  There’s a park he wants to visit, there’s a bookshop he’s heard about, there’s a friend he wants to see.  Death may be calling, but he won’t listen.  He is ancient, he can’t walk straight, he winces in pain, but he retains the curiosity and energy of his very young self.

We have wasted a lot of time.  We have refused to learn so much and on so many occasions.  We have been flighty, stubborn, blinkered, dull and hard-hearted.  But our spirit isn’t vanquished, which is why we’re here.  There are so many pictures left to see and ideas to recall and rehearse.

It wasn’t too late for him – and it isn’t too late for us.’