Self-Portrait, 1815. Academia de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain
Francisco de Goya was arguably one of the greatest artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Although his talents as a painter and printmaker were considerable, Goya's creative and insightful critique of Spain's social climate is what made him great. I chose to explore the critical themes behind several of Goya's paintings and etchings that contributed to his success as both an artist and as an influential social pundit.
Born on March 30, 1746 in Fuendetodos, Aragon, Spain, little is known of Goya's early childhood. At age fourteen, he was sent to the José Luzán y Martínez training school in Madrid where he would study drawing and engraving. Goya's first involvement with the Spanish Crown came in 1765 when he became a designer of patterns for the Royal Tapestry Factory. It wasn't long before Goya's talents caught the eye of Spanish monarchs and he was appointed to the Royal Academy of Fine Art. Goya began painting portraits for royal patrons including King Carlos III and Crown Prince Don Luis. Most notably, in 1799, Goya was appointed first court painter to Charles IV. For several years, Goya would receive many commissions from the royal court, making him a notable and prolific artist.
Charles IV of Spain and His Family, 1800-1801. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
In the painting above, we can see the first hints of Goya's subtle social commentary. Art historians believe that this was meant to be a subtle yet subversive jab at the corruption and dilapidation of the monarchy. Most notably, Goya has painted his subjects without flattery or embellishment, and has made no effort to distinguish the figures as remarkable or important leaders. His placement of Louisa, the king's wife, at the center of the portrait, was meant to relay that she was the true monarch, wielding significant power over her husband. As time went on and Goya distanced himself from royal commissions, his paintings would become heavy with criticism, broaching difficult topics such as tyranny, abuse of power by both the church and monarchy, torture, rape, and indelible personal freedoms.
Two events became a catalyst for Goya's descent into darker subject matter: the Peninsular War (1808-1814), and the death of his beloved wife Josefa in 1812. Battling both emotional turmoil and a severe illness leaving him deaf, Goya became introverted and reclusive. In 1814 he created what is perhaps his best known work, The Third of May, 1808. Shown below, this painting depicted the harsh and gruesome nature of war in which Spanish resisters of the French invasion during the Peninsular War were massacred by a firing squad. Here, Goya revolutionized the depiction of war. Prior to this composition, artists favored a historical rendition of events that followed classical compositional formula. Goya actively abandons this format in order to give a blunt and non-glorified rendering of the brutality of war. This painting inspired a later series of prints titled The Disasters of War.
The Third of May, 1808, 1814. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
As Goya grew older, he transitioned further and further into isolation and misanthropy. After witnessing the political turmoil of Spain and the many social injustices present in the country's history, his outlook on humanity became quite bleak. This dark and gloomy turmoil is exemplified by the group of paintings Goya created in his later years from 1819-1823, aptly titled The Black Paintings. Among these paintings is Witches' Sabbath, a mural done in oil and plaster directly on a wall in his house. In this painting, Satan, dressed as a goat, presides over a coven of witches, symbolizing the corruption and intimidation tactics employed by the church in order to oppress the masses. Another painting in this series, and my personal favorite, is the haunting image of Saturn Devouring his Son. Fearing a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him, the titan Saturn cannibalized each of his children at birth. Saturn is thought to be a metaphor for Spain, a country ruthlessly devouring its own citizens through wars and revolution.
Witches' Sabbath, 1821–1823. Fresco. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Saturn Devouring his Son, 1819-1823. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Interestingly, the last of Goya's paintings were never intended for public display. These Black Paintings demonstrate the final stage of Goya's interpretation of humanity as lost and helpless to the forces of tyranny and oppression. Goya's works are remarkable as they chronicle not only the tale of a country, but also the artist's own personal outlook on life. I am drawn to Goya as his subject matter is raw and powerful, full of symbolism and truth. His careful renditions of Spain's tumultuous social climate make Goya an insightful painter, commentator, and above else, an historian.
Hughes, Robert. Goya. New York, Alfred A. Knopf: 2003. Print.
Hull, Anthony. Goya: Man Among Kings. London, Hamilton Press: 1987. Print.
Sanchez, A. E. & E. A. Sayre. Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts: 1989. Print.