James Voorhies, art historian with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) as “the most important Spanish artist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” Additionally, Voorhies states “Over the course of his long career, Goya moved from jolly and lighthearted to deeply pessimistic and searching in his paintings, drawings, etchings, and frescoes.” For this paper, I will first explore the metamorphosis of Goya’s work through the timeline of his life, as outlined by Voorhies. It seems Goya’s work transformed from more cheerful images, to portraits of aristocracy, to social and political commentary, to darkly existential themes. Next, I will offer my own impressions and feelings of Goya’s work.
Voorhies describes Goya as beginning his artistic study at the age of fourteen with painter Jose Luzan Martinez. In 1763 Goya joined the painter brothers, Francisco and Ramon Bayeu y Subias, at their Madrid painter studio. In 1774, Goya, through the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs, was asked to work for the Royal Tapestry Factory at Santa Barbara. Goya’s career with royalty, states Voorhies, lasted through four ruling monarchies.
Goya’s earlier works, are what Voorhies has described as “lighthearted.” Images such as Goya’s The Blind Guitarist and Las Meninas, are etchings which portray people in more happier situations. Goya completed these etchings as a part of tapestry designs for royal chambers.
Voorhies notes how Goya’s work with the aristocracy increased in the following years and he spent the years between 1785 and 1788 painting many royal families. The Condesa de Altamira and Her Daughter and the portrait Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga are two examples of Goya’s work painting the royal families. Voorhies notes how the symbolism of the birds in the portrait of Don Manuel Manrique De Zuniga represents “the innocence of youth.”
At forty years old, Voorhies explains, Goya was given the position of painter to King Charles III and then in 1789 he was promoted to court painter under King Charles the IV. In the same year, the French monarchy fell in the French Revolution. Subsequently, in 1793 France declared war on Spain. Voorhies explains Goya traveled to Cadiz in Andalusia, in the south of Spain, on a commission for work and returned later that year to Madrid after a serious, prolonged illness left him completely deaf.
In 1799, continues Voorhies, Goya completed “eighty allegorical etchings called the Caprichos.” Two of these etchings, Out Hunting for Teeth, and As Far Back As His Grandfather, explains Voorhies are satirical commentaries about Spanish society, in which can be read “staged manifestations of superstitious beliefs, like the imagined power of a hanged man’s teeth” “and such ludicrous spectacles as that of jackasses acting like gentlemen (to imply that the opposite is generally the rule).”
Another of Goya’s etchings over this time is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, in which Voorhies explains, “Goya imagined himself asleep amid his drawing tools, his reason dulled by sleep and bedeviled by creatures that prowl in the dark. The artist’s nightmare reflected his view of Spanish society, which he portrayed as demented, corrupt, and ripe for ridicule.”
Later in 1799, Voorhies notes, Goya was promoted to first court painter. In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain and the monarchy of Charles the IV ended. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain triggered opposition from the Spanish citizens which led to mass executions of Spanish citizens. Voorhies notes, while Goya was “repulsed by French atrocities,” he worked as a painter for the French regime. In 1814, Napoleon’s domination over Europe fell and the son of Charles the IV, Ferdinand VII, came into power. Ferdinand VII, explains Voorhies, “revoked the Constitution, reinstated the Inquisition, and declared himself absolute monarch. Not long afterward, he launched a reign of terror.” Goya, explains Voorhies, commemorated the Spanish revolt against the French in The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808. Both paintings are “brutal” depictions, in which, in the first Spanish soldiers fight against French soldiers at a battle in Madrid and the second, in which French solider execute captured Spanish citizens on a hill outside of Madrid, explains Voorhies.
From 1810 to 1820, Voorhies states, Goya continued to produce works of art depicting the atrocities during the Spanish war with France. These works were called The Disasters of War and were only published and made public after Goya’s death. One Can’t Look, states Voorhies, is an etching from the Disasters of War series and graphically depicts people being executed by bayonets.
With Ferdinand VII’s monarchy, Voorhies states, Goya lost his royal commissions and “became isolated from political and intellectual life in Madrid.” During this time, Voorhies explains, Goya produced a series of pieces in his home, Quinta del Sordo (the Deaf Man’s House), in fresco, meaning in watercolor in wet plaster on the walls. These works are today known as the Black Paintings. Voorhies describes these works as “compelling in their sinister and often horrifying scenes with dark, emotional undertones.” Some of these works are, Atropos (The Fates), Two Old Men Eating Soup, Witches’ Sabbath (or The Great He-Goat), and Saturn Devouring His Son.
Goya, according to Voorhies, left Spain “dissatisfied with political developments,” and retired in Bordeaux, France in 1824. Goya lived the last of his life in Bordeaux and in Paris.
To interject my own, limited, impressions and feelings regarding Goya’s work, it does certainly seem like his earlier work was more optimistic. His images portray more simple, cheerful times, perhaps reflective of hope. Quite honestly, I am indifferent regarding his early works. The works, while portraying perhaps a hope and innocence, seem a bit unemotional to me. His earlier works don’t provoke any sort of emotion response in me. As far as his style in his earlier works, it seems a bit more textbook, too similar and conforming to other artists of the time.
However, as he became immersed in the upper echelons of Spanish society, when he became engulfed by aristocracy, it seems like he almost became disillusioned about Spanish society. His works went from portraying a sort of cheerful hope, to a satirical and critical wit. The symbolism in his works during this time portray almost a frustration with society. His works critiquing society and politics are much more original and emotion driven, it seems. In this way, these works are more delightful and interesting than his earlier works, because they have something to actually say and in an engaging, satirical and dark way.
Goya’s works depicting the atrocities of war, it seems, builds upon his already pent up discontentment with politics and society. The graphic pieces showing unarmed citizens being slaughtered, reaching out perhaps begging the soldiers to stop and huddling together are powerful. His pieces regarding the war are dark and disturbing, and emotion provoking.
Goya’s final works, the Black Paintings, are absolutely my favorite. They are disturbing, dark, powerful, original, a bit mysterious and emotion driven. Goya’s style in the Black Paintings is unique to him, much more his own than his style was in his earlier works. His subject matter seems to touch both on the darker sides of the individual in society and alone. Emotionally, his Black Painting seem to reflect perhaps different aspects of life for the individual. Perhaps, the one being consumed, by society, by emotion, by life, by death. Overall, Goya’s Black Paintings feel much more than his other works, particularly, they feel lonely and mournful.
It is undisputable that Goya’s works morphed and evolved as he lived his life. Viewing his works along side knowing the history of his life, one can almost feel what he was feeling. One can feel his metamorphosis, starting with hope and innocence, to frustration, to loneliness and sorrow, all the while understanding the societal and political conditions which influenced his perspectives on life. Overall, I feel Goya’s Black Paintings are the most artistically appealing works by him.
Voorhies, James. “Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) and the Spanish Enlightenment”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/goya/hd_goya.htm (October 2003)