Spanish Painter and Printmaker
Summary of Francisco Goya
Goya occupies a unique position within the history of Western art, and is often cited as both an Old Master and the first truly modern artist. His art embodies Romanticism's emphasis on subjectivity, imagination, and emotion, characteristics reflected most notably in his prints and later private paintings. At the same time, Goya was an astute observer of the world around him, and his art responded directly to the tumultuous events of his day, from the liberations of the Enlightenment, to the suppressions of the Inquisition, to the horrors of war following the Napoleonic invasion. Both for its inventiveness and its political engagement, Goya's art had an enormous impact on later modern artists. His unflinching scenes from the Peninsular War presaged the works of Pablo Picasso in the 20th century, while his exploration of bizarre and dreamlike subjects in the Caprichos laid the foundation for Surrealists like Salvador Dalí. Goya's influence extends to the 21st century, as contemporary artists have also drawn inspiration from the artist's grotesque imagery and searing social commentary.
- Goya's formal portraits of the Spanish Court are painted in a lavish virtuoso style, and highlight the wealth and power of the royal household. On the other hand, the works have been seen to contain veiled, even sly, criticisms of the ineffectual rulers and their circle.
- Goya is one of the greatest printmakers of all time, and is famous for his achievements in etching and aquatint. He created four major print portfolios during his career: the Caprichos, Proverbios, Tauromaquia, and The Disasters of War. Perhaps even more than his paintings, these works reflect the artist's originality and his true opinions about the social and political events of his day. The subject matter of his etchings veers from dreamlike to grotesque, documentary to imaginary, and humorous to harshly satirical.
- Women occupy a central place within Goya's oeuvre, and his images of majas (the stylish and outlandish members of Spain's lower classes in the 18th and 19th centuries), witches, and queens are some of his most daring and modern interpretations, depicting women in possession of their own powers, whether political or sexual. Many of these works have led to speculation about Goya's private life, for example his supposed affair with the Duchess of Alba.
- Goya's late paintings are among the darkest and most mysterious of his creations. His series of 14 paintings from his farmhouse on the outskirts of Madrid (the so-called "Black Paintings") contain images of violence, despair, evil, and longing. They are the pessimistic expressions of an aging, deaf artist who was disillusioned with society and struggling with his own sanity. Their exploration of the dark forces at work in his own subconscious foreshadows the art of the Expressionists and Surrealists in the 20th century.
Biography of Francisco Goya
To pass safely through the Spanish countryside occupied by the invading French army, Goya coated his works with a layer of whitewash, so that his depictions of the war’s atrocities could escape detection and be revealed later, as he believed, that art "is about one heart telling another heart where he found salvation."
Important Art by Francisco Goya
This portrait of the Spanish royal family was made at the height of Goya's career as a court painter. Unlike many of his earlier society and court portraits, which hewed more closely to the genre's conventions of flattery, this painting signals a new direction for the artist in its unflinchingly (some might say grotesquely) realistic depictions of its sitters. The artist based the composition on Velázquez's Las Meninas, which also includes a self-portrait of the artist in the act of painting the royal family. Here, Goya depicts himself in the shadows, standing in front of a large canvas (presumably the same one we now behold) in the far left background.
At the center of the composition, brilliantly lit, is the figure of Queen Maria Luisa, who holds the hand of her son Francisco (in vivid red) and her daughter, Maria Isabel. King Charles stands to her left: widely thought to be an ineffectual leader, his off-center placement provides a clue about the power dynamic of the family as well as their foibles and failings. Indeed, the Queen was believed to hold the real power, along with Prime Minister Manuel Godoy, with whom she had an affair (her illegitimate children are at the far left of the canvas, one in blue, the other in orange). Goya's subversive critique - disguised as a glorifying portrait - of the corruption of Charles IV's reign is further enhanced by the subject of a painting hanging in the background, which shows the Biblical story of the immoral and incestuous Lot and his daughters.
From a technical standpoint, the painting dazzles with detail, especially in the luxurious garments and jewels worn by the family. Goya's brushwork is loose and spontaneous in other areas of the composition. Rembrandt's influence on the artist is apparent in this work, notably in the play of light and shadow and in the overall warm tonality of Goya's palette.
Goya was himself the subject of scandal and rumor particularly when it came to his relationships with members of Spain's social elite. For instance, he was suspected of conducting a love affair with the aristocratic Maria Cayetana de Silva, the 13th Duchess of Alba, one of the most famous women in Spain. Their liaison probably began after the death of the Duke of Alba in 1796 (Goya had painted portraits of both husband and wife in 1795). Goya was no doubt taken with the Duchess's haughty beauty, with her curvaceous figure, alabaster complexion, and voluminous black curls.
Painted the year after the Duke's death, this portrait of the Duchess depicts her in mourning black, wearing the traditional costume of a maja, one of the very stylish members of Spain's lower classes known for their bold behavior. In posing as a maja, the Duchess was making an attempt to connect with the masses, despite her elevated social standing. Standing with one hand on her hip, she points toward the ground with her other hand, where Goya has lightly drawn his name in the dun-colored sand. When the painting was restored, the word "solo" was uncovered next to Goya's name, implying that the artist was her only love (though she wears two rings on her hand, one inscribed "Alba", the other "Goya").
Though the painting was commissioned by the Duchess, Goya kept it in his possession for 15 years, indicating his strong attachment to the work and its subject, or, possibly, the Duchess' inability to accept a work that so openly flaunted an affair. Much of the imagery that would populate Goya's prints and drawings following the end of their affair - women as fickle temptresses, men as cuckolded fools, lovers tortured by uncontrollable passions - has lead art historians to suspect that his heart had been broken by the Duchess.
Goya is as famous for his prints as he is for his paintings, and is known as one of the great masters of the etching and aquatint techniques. The first of his four major print series was Los Caprichos, which consists of 80 numbered and titled plates. The artist's stated purpose in making the series was to illustrate "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." Goya began working on the plates around 1796, after an undiagnosed illness left him deaf and drove him to retreat into a self-imposed isolation.
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, plate 43 in the series, depicts a sleeping man (thought to be Goya himself), surrounded by a swarm of strange flying creatures. These are the "monsters" of the title, which invade the mind when reason is surrendered to imagination and dreams. Many of the animals Goya depicts hold symbolic meaning: the owls and bats represent ignorance and evil, while the watchful lynx at the artist's feet - a creature known for its ability to see in darkness - alerts us to the importance of distinguishing fact from fiction. The bat with the goat head may be a satanic reference, and allusions to witchcraft can be found throughout the series. However, as with many of Goya's prints, the intended meaning of the various symbols can be hard to deduce with certainty.
The Caprichos introduces the dark subject matter and mood that would continue to define Goya's work until the end of his life. These works, based on extensive drawings in pen and ink, were expressions of the artist's personal beliefs and ideas, created outside his official work for the court and influential patrons. These prints were profoundly influential to later Surrealists like Dalí in their mingling of realism and dream symbolism.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Francisco Goya
- Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in ArtOur Pickby Fred Licht
- Goyaby Robert Hughes
- Goya in The Twilight Of Enlightenmentby Janis Tomlinson
- Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) and the Spanish EnlightenmentOur PickBy James Voorhies / The Met Museum / October 2013
- The Dark & Light of Francisco GoyaBy Colm Toibin / NY Books / December 18, 2014
- From Princes to Paupers: How Goya's Portraits Tell the Story of SpainOur PickBy Michael Prodger / The Guardian / September 26, 2015
- Goya's Dark Etchings From a Past Full of HorrorsBy Martha Schwendener / The New York Times / October 29, 2011
- The Nerdwriter: The Most Disturbing PaintingOur PickThe powerful Saturn Devouring His Son by Goya
- Lecture - Goya: The Most Spanish of ArtistsOur PickMuseum of Fine Arts Boston
- Goya's Third of May, 1808Smithsonian - Art historical analysis intro
- El Sueno de la Razon Produce MonstruosAnalysis by San Jose Museum of Art
- Lecture - Goya: Prints in ContextYale University Art Gallery