Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings

Francisco de Goya is arguably the most influential and important Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Simultaneously considered the last of the old masters and among the first moderns, his work inspired modern and postmodern artists like Manet, Picasso, and Bacon.

As his fame grew towards the middle of his life, Goya was commissioned to paint many figures of the Spanish nobility. In 1780 He was appointed the first court painter to Charles the IV and Ferdinand VII. As his career progressed, he faced several life-threatening illnesses and the brutal French invasion of Spain during the Napoleonic wars, which he famously depicted.

Goya’s black paintings were completed late in his life between1819 and 1823 and are his most famous works. Almost completely void of color, the works relied heavily on a palette of ochre, gray, white, and black. The dark and macabre black paintings are thought to portray a contempt for the period’s societal norms and be a window into Goya’s insight on the human condition, war, and violence.

Goya – Saturn devouring his sons

Goya’s life leading up to the Napoleonic Wars

Goya’s career as a painter began to pick up steam in the mid-1770s when the Royal Tapestry Factory in Santa Barbara commissioned him to create a cartoon series. The paintings in the Rococo style depicted contemporary scenes of life in Spain. The tapestries that resulted were installed in several royal palaces allowing Goya to make connections in the Spanish court as a respected upcoming artist. Francisco Goya’s social status began to rise as a result. Francisco Goya’s art of that period was becoming well known.

During this time, he also began work on his famous etchings based on the work of Diego Velázquez.
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The project allowed him to master the art of printmaking, a medium he would often use in his career going forward. It also cemented Velázquez as an undeniable influence on Francisco Goya’s art.
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In 1789 Goya became the first painter to King Charles IV. and painted many portraits of the royal family. During this period he also was commissioned to paint portraits of many other leading members of the Spanish nobility including:

  • Pedro Téllez-Girón the 9th Duke of Osuna
  • Téllez-Girón’s wife María Josefa Pimentel,
  • 12th Countess-Duchess of Benavente
  • José Álvarez de Toledo,
  • Duke of Alba and María del Pilar de Silva
  • María Ana de Pontejos y Sandoval, Marchioness of Pontejos

Modern historians see an underlying satire in many of his portraits of Spanish nobility suggestive of corruption and moral decay. But, if this is true, it was subtle enough to have flown under the radar of Spain’s elite, who continued to commission him until France invaded Spain under Napoleon in 1808.

The French Invasion

Goya – May 3 1808

The French Invaded Spain in 1808, and Napoleon installed his brother on the throne. During this period, the works of artist Francisco Goya included portraits of French patrons and Napoleon sympathizers, but it’s believed that Goya remained neutral.

The brutal French occupation of Spain marked the beginning of Goya’s turn toward depicting the macabre. To Francisco Goya, art mirrored life. His series of engravings, The Disasters of War, graphicly portrayed the violence, famine, and death caused by the conflict. Modern art historians see the series as akin to a visual protest against the atrocities of the war.

During the French occupation, Goya became increasingly ill and depressed. Those who knew him well worried about Francisco de Goya. A friend said of his condition, “the noises in his head aren’t improving, yet his vision is better, and he is back in control of his balance.” Although his condition was undiagnosed, it’s thought he suffered from viral encephalitis or possibly strokes. The illness led to Goya completely losing his hearing.

Some believe his illness is rooted in paranoia or dementia that could have been brought on by brain trauma. Unfortunately, diagnostics at the time provided no way to check. Paintings by artist Francisco Goya took on a much darker feel after his illness, culminating in the black paintings.

The Black Paintings

Goya – Two Old Women Eating from a Bowl

Still haunted by the many atrocities he saw during the Napoleonic wars, Goya retreated from public life to a two-story house on the outskirts of Madrid known as Quinta Del Sordo or Deaf Man’s Villa. There he began a project that, prior to his exile to France, in 1824, no one knew about. Francisco Goya’s art was never seen in the same light once the paintings were discovered.

Unlike his past works, the black paintings were not intended for public viewing. The devilish and tormented images were vast murals covering most of the walls in his house. The artist never showed them to anyone. They were never signed, dated, or named by Goya. Clearly, he never intended for them for exhibition.

Nearly 50 years after his death, the paintings were removed from his home and transferred to canvas. Sadly they were altered in the process. Arthur Ludlow famously said the transferred works were “a crude facsimile of what Goya painted.” Today, the paintings are an integral part of the Goya collection at ​​Museo Nacional del Prado in Spain.

While some believe Francisco Goya art was the work of a paranoid man in mental decline, fearful of his own insanity. Nothing could be further than the truth.
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The works were profoundly political and incendiary. In recent years art historians realized that Goya had painted an Image of Napoleon in the piece The Pilgrimage of San Isidro. At least 20 other political figures were identified in the paintings in the wake of this discovery. A sign that the works were intended as a powerful political statement by the liberal-leaning artist.

Changing the Course of Art World

During his lifetime Francisco Goya used his art to critique the current events of his day. His departure from classical tradition marked the beginning of modern art and paved the way for many great contemporary artists. Of the many masterpieces he created in his long career, the black paintings will always be remembered as a shockwave that forever changed the art world.

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