For many art historians, the Spanish romantic painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was ‘the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns’. To honor his contributions to art, a 500 Pesetas currency note was issued by the Spanish Bank (El Banco de Espana) in July 1874 featuring Goya on the face of the banknote, as seen here.
For those who study his works, and if they read many thousands of articles written on Goya’s life and work, it may seem he was at conflict with himself ideologically, philosophically, and emotionally, or he was a bundle of confusions and contradictions, even while appreciating his great contributions to the art world.
At one hand, he loved and boasted about several of his lucrative Church commissions received from the priesthood, and on the other hand, at least on a later stage, Goya commented that the priests chased boys and treated themselves with the best of food and drinks. Goya also became the fiercest critic of the Inquisition, and accused the Church of being greedy.
For about 40 years he was a court painter, and he used to boast about the hefty sums of money he earned for his work. But he fiercely criticized the royals too, often making highly satirical and caustic comments on political, social, economic and religious hypocrisy of the royals.
His new-found views, especially after his two critical afflictions with diseases and becoming deaf for the rest of his life, found artistic expression as symbols of evil, tragedy, madness, anxieties, oppression, and his crusade against wars.
The new form of art of Francisco Goya dramatically influenced the nineteenth century French writers who praised him as a romantic hero and a revolutionary, especially with reference to the oil painting ‘The Third of May 1808’, seeking to commemorate the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies during the occupation of 1808.
A mysterious illness wrought tragedy in Goya’s life in the period between late 1792 and early 1793. Its cause could not be correctly diagnosed by doctors. It left him deaf for life, and made him withdraw to his own shell and made him highly introspective. As the diagnosis was inconclusive, speculations arose on the cause of his affliction to as diverse and unlikely reasons as botulism, meningitis, hepatitis, polio and even syphilis.
After becoming deaf, for several months Francisco Goya could not pursue his creative work. When he resumed work, his fear of isolation was reflected on several of his works. For example, as can be seen in his oil painting titled ‘Yard with Lunatics’ (Corral de locos) Goya depicted ‘deeply disturbing visions of sadism and suffering’.
Someone’s minor loss can sometimes turn out to be several others’ big gains. Here the loser is the Romanticist Goya, and the gainer is the newborn Modernist Goya, beginning with his ‘Black Paintings’, a series of 14 oil paintings he created between 1819 and 1823.
In 1819, a totally deaf Goya, aged 72, moved into a two-storey house called Quinta del Sordo (Deaf Man’s Villa) outside Madrid, after the Napoleonic wars and Spanish internal turmoil made Goya develop a bitter attitude towards human life. He himself had a firsthand awareness of panic, terror, fear and hysteria, and he became severely apprehensive in fear of further relapse and degeneration of his unpleasant condition. These fears are reflected in his Black Paintings.
The Goya’s Black Paintings were neither commissioned, nor meant for public exhibition, because they were painted directly onto the walls of his Madrid house. These were rather self-expressions for himself, consisting of haunting visions with disturbingly dark themes. As Goya himself did not title the paintings, their titles have been provided by art historians later.
Perhaps the best-known work from the Black Paintings series is ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ portraying the Roman god Saturn eating his son to defeat a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him. Goya painted Saturn’s cannibalism with a startling savagery.
The other paintings of Goya’s Black Paintings series are: Saturn Devouring His Son (Saturno devorando a su hijo), The Fates (Átropos or Las Parcas), Witches’ Sabbath (El Gran Cabrón/ Aquelarre), Fight with Cudgels (Duelo a garrotazos), Two Old Men Eating Soup (Dos viejos comiendo sopa), Fantastic Vision (Vision fantástica), A Pilgrimage to San Isidro (La romería de San Isidro), The Dog (El perro), Two Old Men (Dos viejos/ Un viejo y un fraile), Men Reading (La Lectura), Judith and Holofernes, Women Laughing, (Mujeres riendo), Procession of the Holy Office (Peregrinación a la fuente de San Isidro/ Procesión del Santo Oficio), Leocadia (Una manola/ La Leocadia), and possibly a 15th painting, Cabezas en un paisaje.
There was not much of artistic technical innovation in Goya’s modernism. Rather it was all about a change in his attitude, and they were pronounced by a sense of inquiry or questioning, irreverence to life, skepticism about societal authority, including questioning the authority of the Church and the monarchy. Also Goya created sensation and shock through these paintings depicting crimes and cannibalism. Above all, his rebellion against war was prominent, as he believed that ‘war could have no victor, only degradation on all sides’.
In 1874, the Black Paintings painted on the walls of his rooms were transferred to canvas and they are now on display at the Museo del Prado.
When the monarchy was reestablished in Spain (by Ferdinand VII) in 1823, Goya went into hiding and a year later he escaped to Bordeaux, where he lived in ‘self-imposed exile’ till his death.
In 1825 physicians diagnosed Goya with a large tumor. Later he had a stroke that paralyzed half of his body and on 16 April 1826 Francisco Goya died with only a few friends by his bedside.