I am going back in time again. This time to Spain of the 18th and 19th Century. Francisco Goya was a master painter and printmaker whose work ranged from sophisticated royal portraits to illicit nudes to disturbing depictions of war and violence.
Pretty and Sweet
He started out as an apprentice at age 14 and quickly moved up the ranks due to talent. He eventually came to the attention of King Charles III, becoming an artist on the royal payroll. He did pretty and sweet paintings of the Royal family to earn his keep. At least they look that way to us now. But at the time he was known for not sugar coating the looks of his subjects. He would be similar to a portrait photographer now who uses very little Photoshop on his work.
Even while he was painting supposedly idyllic scenes he was also infusing them with sometimes satiric or critical commentary about the state of Spain.
The Fox in the Hen House
For example in the painting above the whole family is gathered but the Queen is in the center indicating greater power. And behind the King on the right is a painting of Lot and is daughters from the Old Testament, a very obvious allusion to corruption and perversion at the time. How he got away with these slights is a mystery, but he did.
You might be asking, why do I love this guy anyway? He looks like a pretty average painter of pretty boring Royal portraits, so what’s the big deal?
Here’s the big deal. in 1792 Goya came down with a mysterious malady, still unknown to this day, that caused him to go deaf. It led him to become withdrawn, introspective and much more willing to create images that were filled with his dreams, nightmares, disillusionments, madness and violence. These were directed at humanity, at France, at Spain, and the ceaseless political intrigue and the brutality of war. We would almost certainly not care or no much about his work if he had not turned to these subject matters so decisively. He didn’t give up his work as a painter of society and royalty, but he did work alone and intensely on images that were the complete opposite of his public image.
During my Sophomore year at Brandeis University I was able to study the prints of Goya at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. Two series really stood out to me.
The first was ‘Los Caprichos’. In these images he depicts the folly of society, satirically making fun of both the high and low.
The Disasters of War
The second series that stood out even more was his ‘Disasters of War’. Spain had been invaded in 1808 by Napoleon’s army and conflict ensued for 6 years. In response Goya painted his most famous piece, as well as countless prints for his series.
This painting turned the corner in art from the classic world to the modern. With this image Goya inspired centuries of artists to come to be bold and unsparing in their depictions of the true nature of war.
These were not published until 35 years after his death.
The Black Paintings
Even when the fighting was over the Bourbon dynasty was restored to the throne, setting back many decades of enlightened liberal progress in Spain. Goya was distraught over this. But worse yet was the likely dementia he was starting to experience. His images became dark, disturbing treatments of not just society’s woes but his own internal struggle.
The etching above wasn’t done towards the end of his life, but it illustrates both the mental madness he might have been experiencing and his belief in reason as a bulwark against such monsters, in life and in society.
This image was painted on the walls inside his house, along with many others called ‘The Black Paintings’ from his later years.
I can just imagine the torment he had in his head. But the amazing thing, and the reason he is an artist I love, is he kept creating. He pushed forward and unflinchingly showed his vision of the world, for good and for bad.
The Secret Maja
And now, just so we don’t end on a completely macabre note, here are two very similar images of the same woman. They never were displayed publicly during his life but were displayed in the home of the owner and commissioner of the pieces. There is no consensus on who the woman is but some think she is the Duchess of Alba that is shown at the top of the article.
It was quite the scandal for him to have painted the nude in the first place, but it was even moreso because there was no pretense of mythology or religion. It was an image of a real woman, not a long gone historical figure. It’s probably the first major European painting to be painted and presented in this way since the Roman era.
- Week #5 – Francisco Goya
- Week #4 – Robert Irwin
- Week #3 – Veruschka
- Week #2 – Albrecht Durer
- Week #1 – Roger Brown
- Week #10 – Coco Larrain
- Week #9 – Nina Levy
- Week #8 – Andy Goldsworthy
- Week #7 – Wayne Thiebaud
- Week #6 – Richard Diebenkorn
- Week #5 – Roy Lichtenstein
- Week #4 – Thomas Hart Benton
- Week #3 – Edward Hopper
- Week #2 – Henri Matisse
- Week #1 – Rembrandt
The images in this article are all from the fantastic site ‘WikiPainting‘. I highly recommend exploring it.
If you would like to read more about Goya I would recommend starting here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art page about him. Of course you will find the most information about him in Spain, primarily at the Prado Museum where many of his masterpieces are on display.