Francisco Goya / by Chris Hall

Francisco Goya, Self Portrait, 1795.

Francisco Goya, Self Portrait, 1795.

Francisco Goya was a Spanish Romantic painter and printmaker, often regarded as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns.  He was a court painter to the Spanish aristocracy, all while secretly holding liberal, republican beliefs.  Of more interest, however, are the imaginative works he painted for himself, which, as Goya grew older, became more and more satirical, macabre, and grotesque.  

Goya was born in Fuendetodos, Aragón, Spain, on 30 March 1746.  As a young man, he moved to Madrid, and then to Italy to study art.  After some initial difficulty and a period of hard work, Goya managed to become a popular portrait painter, and in 1786, secured himself a salaried position as a court painter to Charles III of Spain.  Goya was retained when two years later, Charles the IV succeeded to the throne.  In 1789, the revolution erupted in France, and discussions of republicanism was in the air in Spain.  Goya was a liberal and was sympathetic toward republicanism, but he also needed his job as a portrait painter to support his family.  

Goya kept his opinions to himself, although he sometimes portrayed his subjects in an unflattering light.  His painting of Charles IV of Spain and His Family (1800), for instance, is thought to be something of a social satire.  Charles IV was generally thought to be weak and corrupt.  His wife, Louisa was thought to be the real power behind the throne.  Goya painted Louisa as the central focal point of the painting.  The family stands before a painting depicting Lot and his daughters, echoing the idea of aristocratic corruption and moral decay.  To the back and left, hidden in the shadow, Goya painted himself painting and silently judging his patrons.

Sometime late in 1792, Goya contracted a serious illness (the exact nature of which is unknown) which left Goya deaf.  He had a physical and mental breakdown as a result and became withdrawn and introspective.  A contemporary reported, "The noises in his head and deafness aren’t improving, yet his vision is much better and he is back in control of his balance." These symptoms are typical of Ménière's disease, although many also suspect the cumulative effects of lead poisoning.  Goya was known to have used a massive amount of lead white in his paintings, both as a primary color and as a canvas primer. 

During his convalescence, he undertook a series of experimental paintings.  These paintings are decidedly darker from his earlier work, the horrific stuff of nightmares.  Paintings such as The Yard of the Madhouse suggest themes of loneliness, fear, and social alienation, while other works are undisguised sharp social criticisms.  These works would culminate in his series of 80 aquatinted etchings, Los Caprichos, published in 1799.  Goya described the work as "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.”  Shortly after being published, Goya withdrew Los Caprichos, for fear of a backlash from the Inquisition, which was still active in Spain.

In 1800, Goya completed two of his most famous paintings, The Clothed Maja, and The Nude Maja.  These life-size paintings depict the same woman in the same pose, one clothed and one nude.  Nudity was tolerated when it referred to allegorical or mythological subjects, but without this pretense, Goya's painting was considered profane.  The Nude Maja is also considered the first painting in Western Art to show pubic hair.  The two paintings were never shown in public; they were owned by the Spanish Prime Minister Manuel Godoy.  When Godoy fell from power in 1808, he was exiled and all his property was seized.  The Inquisition confiscated the paintings, because of their “obscenity.”

In 1808, French forces under Napoleon invaded Spain, leading to the Peninsular War of 1808 – 1814.  Napoleon set up his brother, Joseph, as the new king.  Goya kept neutral during the fighting.  He was a Spanish patriot, but also a republican, hoping Napoleon would bring social and political reforms.  Goya took a loyalty oath and became the new court painter for Joseph I. 

During the 1810's Goya created a new set of 82 aquatinted etchings titled The Disasters of War.  These works, while politically ambivalent (they condemn atrocities committed by both Spanish rebels and the French), are thought to be a protest against all war and violence in general.  The prints document events from the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid, through the Peninsular War, and the setbacks to the liberal cause following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the reintroduction of the Inquisition in 1814.  The prints are, at times, graphic and disturbing in their depiction of battlefield horrors, and represent Goya's outraged conscience in the face of death and destruction.  The Disasters of War was not published until 1863, 35 years after Goya's death.  It seems likely that Goya considered it politically unsafe to release them, as the prints criticizes both the French and the restored Bourbons.  

After the restoration of the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, in 1814, Goya denied any involvement with the French.  In 1819, Goya retired to a country house outside of Madrid.  The house was known as the Quinta del Sordo, which means “House of the Deaf Man.”  It was named after its previous owner, though it is something of a strange coincidence that Goya was also deaf.

Francisco Goya, Witches' Sabbath, c 1823

After the Napoleonic Wars and the even more repressive monarchy of Ferdinand VII, Goya became an embittered man and developed a bleak outlook toward mankind.  This attitude, and his growing fear of insanity, is reflected in his series of so called Black Paintings, created between 1819 and 1823.  These paintings, fourteen works in total, were painted directly onto the walls of the house.  Because these works are thought to portray Goya's growing sense of panic, terror, and hysteria, the Black Paintings are sometimes thought of as a precursor of the Expressionist movement in the early 20th century.

In 1824, Goya, disgusted with Spain, moved to France, where he would die of a stroke four years later in 1828, age 82.  He left Quinta del Sordo, and the Black Paintings contained within it, to the care of his grandson, Mariano Goya.  In 1874, the slow process of removing the Black Paintings and transferring them to canvas was started.  In 1881 they found a new home, in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.