The Museo del Prado in Madrid is one of the world’s great art museums. Its walls are lined with the works of some of the world’s best known and most revered painters, including not only the works of Spanish masters such as Valasquez, Goya, Tiepolo, and El Greco, but others of the great artists, including Raphael, Titian, and Bosch. Even amongst all the other works of the great masters the most interesting art in the museum is in a small gallery on the ground floor containing the collection of 14 paintings by Francisco Goya now known as the Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings). These fascinating paintings, some disturbing and all uniquely compelling, are among the most arresting art works I have ever seen. The inevitable question for anyone who sees them is what they mean, a question that has drawn me in since my first visit to the Prado many years ago.
The Black Paintings were originally painted by Goya when he was in his 70s, as murals on the walls of his rural retreat, the Quinta del Sordo (the Deaf Man’s House, named not for Goya who was indeed deaf at that time, but for the deaf farmer who previously owned the house). The paintings are referred to as the Black Paintings because of the dark palette Goya used in creating the images. It seems clear that Goya never intended for the paintings to be publicly displayed; indeed, they may have been intended for an audience of one. In creating the paintings, Goya was in effect talking to himself.
The only way to even try to understand the paintings is to start with Goya himself. He lived a long, eventful life; unusually for the time, he lived into his eighties. He painted the Black Paintings after a long career, and in a sense as a culmination of his work and his experiences.
Given where he ended up artistically – that is, with the Black Paintings — Goya’s artistic career began conventionally enough; he worked as a court painter who also took commissions for private portraits and large church works. Goya would be remembered as a fine painter if all that remained of his work was this more quotidian aspect of his output, particularly the portraits — many of his portraits are both beautiful and memorable. Robert Hughes, the author and former art critic of Time magazine, called Goya in his one-volume biography of Goya “one of the greatest portrait painters of the age.”
The best example of Goya’s skills as a portraitist is his 1785 painting of the Duquesa de Osuna. She was, Hughes wrote in his biography of Goya, “one of the great social-intellectual hostesses of Europe, a woman of enormously developed taste, sharp as a tack, wry in humor, and calmly dismissive of every sort of stupidity, superstition, and cant.” Goya’s portrait of her is “one of the finest of his entire career.” Hughes says, “you can indeed believe she inspired him.” Goya, Hughes says, “sets before us a woman of great style but no frivolity, and this, in essence, was the truth” about her. I have never seen the original of this painting, which apparently is in a private collection, but even in reproduction it is remarkable. Goya’s painting strongly conveys the living, breathing person.
One of the truly noteworthy things about Goya’s official career was that he managed to survive as a court painter across multiple generational changes in the ruling dynasty, during one of the most tumultuous periods in Spanish history. Hughes says that “one of the abiding mysteries of Goya seems to be that so fiery a spirit, so impetuous and sardonic, so unbridled in his imagination, could ever have adapted not just occasionally but consistently for more than 40 years, to the conditions of working for successive Bourbon courts.”
The best of example of Goya’s adaptation in his role as Court painter is his 1800 painting of the Family of Carlos IV, a huge work that today takes up an entire wall of a gallery in the Prado museum. It is a painting that attracts attention; I know from standing looking at the painting myself that there is a fairly consistent reaction to the painting from museum-goers today. The almost universal reaction is audible; how, the inevitable question goes, did Goya “get away” with this? Indeed, the less than impressive collection of individuals gathered into this painting does, at least today, seem to beg the question whether Goya was satirizing his royal patron and family. (The French author and critic Théophile Gautier referred to it as “a portrait of the owner of the corner grocery and his wife.”)
Hughes has little time for these kinds of interpretations of the painting; it would have been extremely dangerous for Goya to have attempted such a thing. The painting was in fact well-received by the King and his family. Goya completed the painting after several preliminary studies that his patron reviewed and approved — it appears that the King got the painting he wanted. As Hughes perceptively points out, it is entirely possible that Goya has in fact “made the couple look somewhat nobler and more handsome that they did in real life.” Given what we know of the hapless and incompetent monarch and his wife and family, it seems entirely possible that this was at least an accurate, if not flattering, family portrait.
Goya’s work took a decidedly dark turn after he suffered a serious illness in 1793. He suffered extensive bouts of vertigo and neuralgia. He also suffered sight and hearing loss. After a brief time, his vision returned, but his hearing never did. He remained deaf for the rest of his life. Although there is no overt map from his illness and his deafness to the darker art that followed, much of his subsequent work (including many of the works for which he is most famous) seem to be an extension of the isolation and disillusionment from which he suffered.
The most significant of his works that followed his illness and reflected his new darker mode is Los caprichos (The Caprices), a set of 80 etchings that Goya created in 1797-1798 and printed in 1799. Goya’s technique, particularly his use of aquatint, give many of the prints in the series an “apparitional strangeness,” as Hughes puts it. In the etchings Goya takes on the superstition, ignorance, and cruelty he saw all around him. He also attacks the pretentions of aristocrats, the behavior of monks and priests, and other shams and delusions. Goya himself described the etchings as depicting “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.”
The most famous of the Caprichos is the 43rd in the series of 80 prints, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters). The etching depicts a man with his head down on a table, in an abandoned pose of deep melancholy. Bats, owls, and a sinister cat surround the sleeper, in what seems like an assault of the forces of darkness. There are many interpretations of this work, many of them having to do with Goya himself and his view of his art or of art in general, as overlaid with the values of the Enlightenment. My interpretation of the work is simpler; I read it as saying that if reason slumbers, the monsters of ignorance and superstition are unleashed. (I have thought about this image frequently in recent times.)
Goya produced another set of etchings during the Peninsular War, which took place in Spain between 1807 and 1814. It was a time of great suffering, cruelty and famine. Goya was in Madrid for the duration of the war, and from his experience he created Los desastres de la gueara (The Disasters of War), as moving and disturbing of an artistic account of war as you will ever find. Goya, Hughes comments, was “the first painter in history to set forth the sober truth about human conflict: that it kills and kills again.” Hughes calls the works in his Goya biography “the greatest anti-war manifesto in the history of art.”
The Peninsular War was also the backdrop for what arguably are Goya’s most famous paintings. El dos de Mayo (The Second of May) and El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May). The Second of May depicts the charge by the Mameluke guards into the Puerto del Sol in Madrid during an uprising by the local citizenry against the French invaders in May 1808. The Third of May depicts the consequences for those who were captured during the uprising: execution by firing squad. The work reveals varying degrees of rage, defiance, and fear among the prisoners about to face execution. The victims have faces; the killers do not. It is an image that, according to Hughes, “echoes some of the themes of the Desastres.” The firing squad, as described by Hughes, is “an imperial war machine that kills men like cattle and … leaves no glory behind.”
The focal point of the Third of May is the man in the white shirt, whom Goya depicts, according to Hughes, in “the posture of the crucified man, linking the figure of the anonymous political martyr to that of Christ.” The portrayal even includes on marks of the stigmata on the man’s hands. Hughes writes of this image that “in an age of unremitting war and cruelty, when the value of human life seems to be at the deepest descent in human history …he continues to haunt us.”
The end of the war and the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty brought little relief for Spain or for Goya. Among other things, Goya was called before the Spanish Inquisition in 1815, and though he was acquitted, the experience left him shaken. Then in 1819, Goya suffered another debilitating illness. His recovery was slow, and when his health permitted, he worked on painting the murals on the walls of his house of Quinta del Sordo. What Goya created are raw images that are, as Hughes puts it, “bizarre, mostly incomprehensible, and almost illegibly dark.”
The 14 works in the series of Black Paintings are, as Hughes puts it, “enigmatic, and likely to remain so,” as Goya left no signs or clues that would help us decode their meaning. There does not appear to be a unifying theme to images, and it is difficult to discern any relationship between the paintings. However, there is one way to view the paintings that at least allow us to put them in context; that is, to view them as a culmination of Goya’s life and experiences. Indeed, many of the disturbing images reflected in the Black Paintings echo depictions in his earlier works, particularly the Caprichios and the Desastres.
The most disturbing of the paintings is the horrible image of Saturn Devouring His Son. Hughes gets it just right when he describes the painting of Saturn as “a combination of uncontrollable appetite and overwhelming shame.” Hughes speculates that perhaps the painting as a reference to the then-current political turmoil in Spain; that is, as an “incarnation of a revolution that ended by eating its own children.”
The other images are not as manifestly disturbing, but many are just as haunting. In one painting, Fight with Cudgels, two men stand in an empty field in an open plain, striking at each other with clubs for no apparent reason, and perhaps for no reason at all, while they are trapped knee-deep in mire. In a separate painting, Witches’ Sabbath, a coven of terrified witches faces what we see as the silhouette of Satan in the form of a he-goat. In yet another of the paintings, Fantastic Vision, two figures hover above the ground while facing a large table-top mountain; both of the figures seem fearful and disturbed, and in the landscape below we can see a squad of soldiers taking aim at a group of people passing through the scene.
These images are accompanied by a series of others: the head of a dog partially obscured by a hillside; two old men eating soup; a group of women laughing; a group of somber congregants making a dark pilgrimage to the shrine of San Isidro. All of the images are obscure, dark, and inscrutable.
The images are intensely personal, corresponding to Goya’s own private language, a language that he first used in his etchings, and then elaborated upon in these paintings. We can only speculate, but the paintings do seem to echo the isolation of Goya’s deafness, his own horror at the cruelty of war, his own suffering from his two near-fatal illnesses. We will never know for sure what the paintings mean or were meant to say. But for me it is their very elusiveness that makes them so haunting.
Even if we cannot be sure how to interpret the paintings, the images not only transport us to a very different world of Goya’s own imagining, the images are indelible — they stay with us long after seeing them. I don’t know what the paintings mean, but despite their inscrutability, their messages seem important, even urgent, and, for me, irresistible.
I hope readers are enjoying the Sunday Arts series. I am very interested on know readers’ reactions. I also want to remind readers that the initial idea of this series is that the weekly feature would be open for readers’ contributions. I hope that if there is a subject you are interested in and want to write about that you will please go ahead and draft up your article and send it in to me for consideration and possible publication.