Of all the famous painters whose artwork graces the Prado Museum, none is more extensively represented than Franciso de Goya (1746-1828).
With nearly 150 Goya paintings, 500 hundred drawings, and his series of engravings, the Prado holds the most thorough collection of Goya artwork in the world.
Charles III of Spain appointed Goya court painter in 1786; his successor, Charles IV, named him principal painter in 1789. By then, Goya was one of the most sought-after portrait painters, having worked during the 1780s for the aristocracy, including the dukes and duchesses of Osuna and Alba.
Two pivotal events shaped the rest of Goya’s life:
- an illness in 1792 rendered him nearly stone deaf, leaving him embittered yet more sympathetic to others’ suffering, and
- the Spanish War of Independence (1808-1814), which left Goya disillusioned after the Napoleonic invasion brought cruelty and death rather than Enlightenment ideals to absolutist Spain.
Here is a brief overview of some of the most influential works by Goya.
Duchess of Alba
One of Goya’s best known portraits, the Duchess of Alba was widely considered to be one of the best-looking women in Spain. She is clothed in the maja style, swathed with ornate, expensive fabrics in her veil and dress. With her right forefinger, the Duchess points to an inscription just uncovered in modern times. It reads, “Solo Goya” or “Only Goya”. The rings on her right hand are inscribed with the names “Alba” and “Goya”, hinting at a romantic relationship between the two.
That supposition has persisted for over two centuries but has never been proven.
The Family of Charles IV
This crown commission displays the royal family in a grand hall suggested by the scale of the paintings behind the family. In Goya’s early years as court painter, he painted what became one of his most famous paintings, The Family of Charles IV.
Here, the influence of Velazquez is visually apparent – Goya includes himself as a painter in the left of this royal family portrait, just as did Velazquez in his own royal portrait, Las Meninas.
In the left foreground dressed in blue is Prince Ferdinand, who went on to stage a coup d’etat, overthrowing his parents in 1808. He installed himself as a despot, eliminated free speech and ousted liberals like Goya, who fled Spain in 1824. Read more about the history of The Family of Charles IV.
The Third of May, 1808
With his profound disgust at the horrors of war, Goya became one of the early creators of artwork for ordinary people rather than for church or state. As the Spanish War for Independence dragged on and the promised institution of Enlightenment became a lost cause, he commented:
I witnessed how the noblest ideals of freedom and progress were transformed into lances, sabres, and bayonets.
No where is this sentiment more powerfully articulated than in The Third of May, 1808.
Two rebel Spaniards fired on 15 soldiers in Napoleon’s army, which resulted in French troops subsequently executing nearly 1,000 citizens from Madrid and nearby towns. This ruthlessly direct portrayal of man’s inhumanity remains one of Goya’s most memorable paintings. Read more about The Third of May, 1808.
The Black Paintings
None of Goya’s artwork is more haunting than the 14 works called the “Black Paintings.”
In 1819, Goya (1746-1828) purchased a country house, whose walls he covered with a series of murals which became the “Black Paintings.” Although there were some minor modifications to the works when they were conserved and transferred to canvas, the series shares common themes of death, fright and evil.
And unclear meaning.
None of these Goya paintings was commissioned, so it seems reasonable to conclude that the “Black Paintings” convey his preoccupations as an elderly man – and his abandonment of the academic training that characterized his earlier career as a court painter.
Three of these Goya paintings convey a general feel for these enigmatic “Black Paintings.”
Saturn Devouring His Son
The theme of Saturn Devouring His Son is derived from Greek mythology. After a prophecy foretold that one of Saturn’s twelve children would overthrow him, he countered by devouring them. The children, though, were actually immortal gods who were transformed into the Olympians — and who fulfilled the prophecy.
Saturn Devouring His Son is so powerful and grotesque that it is difficult to inspect closely.
Luminous blood – made all the more dramatic by its contrast with the near-black background – gushes over a limp, genderless child and Saturn’s hands as he crushes and consumes it. Saturn’s frantic, manic energy, pulsating in his crazed eyes, feels barely containable within the confines of the canvas.
Perhaps Goya is suggesting that the evils of mankind – here, cannibalism and murder – are barely containable as well.
Two Old Men Eating
Although titled Two Old Men Eating, it’s not clear that the figure on the right actually is a man. His ghostlike, cadaverous appearance suggests he might be an apparition, or even Death itself.
Goya has chosen a near monochromatic palette for the barely formed figures who are painted in deep, thick paint with fast, wide brushstrokes; the intensely, near-black background contributes to the nightmarish quality.
Half-Submerged Dog, or The Dog
Half-Submerged Dog, conversely, has an abstract beauty to it (possibly because I prefer imagining that the dog is swimming, not drowning). The dog’s eyes are eerily human and convey anxiety and struggle, with an uncertain outcome. The looseness of the brushwork, the simplified composition and the lack of formal organization seemingly presage abstract painting.
Few famous painters have left such an enduring legacy on subsequent generations.
The loose, free-flowing brushwork in his late paintings anticipated Impressionism, while his incorporation of the world of dreams and the freedom of his response to reality presaged developments in 20th century art, especially Expressionism and Surrealism.
Which painters do you think have been most influenced by Goya? What do you think his most profound legacy is?