Throughout the Life of Francisco Goya

By Direct Knowledge

Goya was one of the best creators in the world at the time, and perhaps overall. This means the complexity of his person is evident in his work. Within his work, as within the life of Francisco Goya, we can find contradictions, steadfast values, and irrationality. Goya uses themes or different methods of speaking that he practices throughout his career. They are speaking politically, satirically, emotionally, allegorically, and in a way we still do not fully understand.

He uses his art as a public method to express his political opinions and take action against those whom he did not support. Goya adopts portraiture as a method for expressing his relation to the sitters. When the focus of the portrait is a political leader, Goya shows his opinion of the ruler and their actions. An example of this would be Ferdinand VII. Goya like Ferdinand during his time as a prince. We see this because in a portrait, Goya portrayed him as handsome, wealthy, and distinguished.

This would change, however. After the war, Ferdinand returned as king. Perhaps Goya saw it as an end to the hopes of the liberal nationalists, among whom Goya was a supporter. In a series of portraits of the king, commissioned for various government buildings, Goya clearly displays his distaste with the returning king by painting him ugly. The face between the two portraits displayed here doesn’t change. Also, working with common iconography, Goya paints calm, sedate horses behind Ferdinand. Iconographically representing the sitter’s innate power, these horses show Ferdinand to be a weak man, as shown by Goya.

Aftermath of the War for Goya

In 1814, after the war ended, the government commissioned Goya to paint a memorial centered around an execution of Spanish civilians that happened on May 3, 1808. This painting, 3rd of May, 1808, shows a Spanish man extremely fearful for the end of his life and the imposing French soldiers lining up in a firing squad. However we can see this man in another painting, 2nd of May, 108, viciously stabbing a French soldier. Goya is showing that the execution on the 3rd is a reprisal by the French. This means an unjust reaction to the civilian uprising.

However, Goya is also showing that this is not exactly unjust. The Spanish man had his day of killing, and so one day his enemy will come to kill him. His admiration of the French Academy and enlightenment ideas conflicted Goya during this war. He wanted Spain to emulate French ideas. Instead this war brought conflict between two much loved parts of Goya’s life. Between these two paintings and the emotions they elicit, Goya is showing that killing is deplorable, no matter the circumstances. Also he shows that the consequence of participating in violence is more violence in turn.

Black Paintings – At Goya’s House

Late in the life of Francisco Goya, he remained mostly at his house, Quinta del Sordo, where he painted many works directly on his walls. Not many of them can be said to be political, and upon first look, Saturn Devouring His Son seems to be among them. However, this work is not allegorical only in the classical sense, but also speaks of contemporary events. During this time in his life, Goya was extremely bitter about Ferdinand’s return to power and the aftermath of that fiasco.  It was common to speak of the king as the father of the country. This adds a new perspective to this painting. Saturn in the myth was the father of the gods of Olympus and also the king of the Golden Age.

Saturn eating his son could be a king destroying his own country. Goya certainly witnessed this when Ferdinand VII reinstated the Inquisition and the absolute monarchy. Although Goya created Saturn Devouring His Son only for his private home, the painting was on the ground floor. This means visitors could see it throughout the life of Francisco Goya. This was less public than the government buildings of Ferdinand VII portraits, however. The rough application of paint adds to the desperation coming off Saturn. Perhaps this emotional painting was too raw for Goya to share with any strangers.

Los Caprichos – Goya’s Satire

Goya speaks satirically or even disdainfully to show his opinions throughout the life of Francisco Goya. In Los Caprichos, Goya is expressing his opinions, usually negative, for common social practices, depicting both ridiculous and deplorable behaviors. Goya called Plate 2 “El sí pronuncian y la mano alargan al primero que llega”. This means They say yes and give their hand to the first one who comes. The woman with the mask is the “they” Goya is speaking of; women who pledge their hand to someone while acting two-faced and being disloyal. Goya’s opinion of the sanctity of marriage must have been low. Also, the woman in the plate has her hands behind her back. Perhaps this signifies that the woman has little choice in the matter of marriage and her future.

Similarly, during the life of Francisco Goya, he challenges the apparent relationships between man and woman. For example in Plate 7: “Ni asi la distingue”, or, Even like this he can’t make her out. Here a monocled man is closely examining an elaborately dressed Maja woman. According to Goya, he can not tell that she is prostitute. Most likely, the woman is being coy and the man is affecting that she is a lady who is interested in him. This suspension of belief adds to the dishonesty of most relationships that Goya is despairing.

Goya’s Disdain for Clergymen

Another target for Goya’s satirical disdain is the clergy. Clearly seen in Plate 52 of Los Caprichos: “Ilo que puede un sastre!”, or, Look what a tailor can do! Here a woman is kneeling in prayer before a priest, who is actually a robe wrapped around a tree. Goya’s message is that robes of a clergy do not a virtuous man make. Also, Goya is disappointed with the woman, who is not seeing the branches coming out of the priest’s costume. Goya is pushing for more critical thought in the masses of people blindly following the religious figures of the time.

In the leading plate of Los Caprichos, Goya names himself painter. He prints a self-portrait where he is smartly dressed with a top hat. Clearly Goya is wandering outside printing what he sees. He acts as if he actually witnessed these ridiculous portrayals throughout the life of Francisco Goya. He is saying that as a painter, Goya can see through into the base of what is happening in these scenes. Goya is side-eying the world, and selling them prints of their ridiculous actions.

Disastrous War – What Did Goya Witness?

During the war between Spain and France, Goya produced a print series called the Disasters of War. In it, Goya speaks of the emotional turmoil of the war and brings the viewer directly into the violence. Many of the plates are close up and undisguised, unlike other war memorials of the time. For example, Plate 5: “And they are like wild beasts” shows a desperate struggle between French soldiers and women. They are fighting with anything they can grab, even large stones. A woman in the lower left looks up to the sky with her knife upraised.

We must ask: who is the “they” Goya is referring to? The French soldiers are perfectly uniformed and faceless while the women scramble to fight for their lives. Perhaps Goya is referring to both sides as wild beasts, and that war can make anyone a beast, as he has seen throughout the life of Francisco Goya.

A different sort of violence was the kind inflicted by soldiers on women. Rather than shying away from sexual violence as a part of war, Goya clearly shows this horrible practice. In Plate 11: “[They don’t like it] Neither do these”, women are being dragged into the dark of the underneath of a bridge by soldier, leaving their babies to cry on the ground. Rather than portraying the war as glorious, Goya is showing how the war does not benefit the civilians. This is because they bear the brunt of the changing whims of the royals.

Another Plate

In the Plate : “What more can be done?”, soldiers are unmanning a naked man, presumably an enemy soldier, though perhaps an enemy civilian. By the title, Goya is being sarcastic: “What more can be done?”, as if unmanning someone is the worst that can be done, however these cruel soldiers printed with wicked faces seem ready to cut the man entirely in half.

These two scenes were probably not witnessed directly by him during the life of Francisco Goya. Yet the closeness of the scene suggests that Goya would want the viewer to feel the pain of the people as powerfully as possible. Also these scenes show Goya’s strength in aquatint. The hazy details of the cruel men’s faces are brought out of the darkness, an extremely difficult technique in printing. Also these two prints show a common theme in Goya’s work during the life of Francisco Goya. This is drawing the viewer’s gaze along a diagonal and then cutting across it with another diagonal.

Hopeful Politics

On a more hopeful note, Goya also used allegorical references to draw his works into the concurrent time. For example, Truth, Time, and History is an allegory to the Constitution of 1812. Here Truth is the Constitution, as evidenced by the small constitution book she holds. Time is ushering her into the future, and History is recording the event. Throughout he life of Francisco Goya, he greatly supported this constitution.

This is because the liberal nationalists introduced it. They included articles about freedom of enterprise, Spain’s first legislature, and separation of power, among others. Goya would have seen this as a step in the right direction for Spain. This work is full of Goya’s hope that these changes in Spanish government would be lasting. This is because they would represent that the war would have an overall positive influence on Spain.

However it was not to be, for upon his return to the crown, Ferdinand VII repealed the constitution on May 4, 1814. Goya may have even known about the repeal because the dates for the painting are 1812-1814. If this were the case, this knowledge would add a certain melancholy to the painting, something not felt in the work itself.

Ridiculous Things Goya Witnessed

Upon further allegories Goya utilizes, some were not so emotional or the situations surrounding were not as dire as the above. An example of this would be the Disparates series. This word “disparates” defies translation. Commonly it is known to mean “ridiculous” or “a crazy amount”, with the works usually titled “Follies”. However, this may not be the 1800’s meaning, and Goya was often fond of using multiple meanings of words. Compounding the problem, Goya did not add titles to many of the plates.

For example, “El cabello raptor”, or The Horse Thief, is a bit misleading. No one is stealing the horse, rather the horse itself has stolen a woman and is carrying her off. However things are not so simple. Upon further notice, the hills in the background turn into monsters and the expression of the stolen woman is smug.

A better translation of the title is Horse Abductorer or Unbridled Folly. This better shows the representation: that of desire unchecked by reason. The common iconography allusion displayed here is used in portraits, usually of military commanders, that of a man on a horse posed similarly to the horse in “El cabello raptor”, which represents the innate power of the man, who is portrayed calmly to show the restraint he holds over his horse, and so over his power. In “El Cabello raptor”, there is no man to keep control of the horse.

Another Disparates

Another of the Disparates series, Plate 22: “Disparate de tontos”, is an image relying on Goya’s skill on portraying bulls, not on reality. With the combination of twisting limbs, the viewer is denied perspective in the space. This is not a study of the anatomy of a bull, but rather a poetic description of a bull. The lack of perspective is a disconnect from reality shared by many of the Disparates series, showing a continuous theme of absurdity, whether exhibited by Goya for satire or humor. Is Goya suggesting that this absurdity is permanent and that rational order has been disrupted? Perhaps in post-war Spain, that was the world Goya was witnessing.

Return to Goya’s House

The works commonly known as the “Black Paintings” are mysterious, mostly evading analysis. These works were painting directly on the wall of Goya’s house. Creating non transferable and non sellable works is different for an artist depending on selling his work. Similar to painting on the walls of churches, secular, a monument. Firstly a researcher must attempt to attribute a allegorical meaning to these works, as Goya as often painted that way, as evidenced by the above discussion. However if this method fails, there is little one can do to give a clear understanding of why Goya painted these works and what they meant to him.

Goya shows an example of this through Atropos, or the Fates. However, Goya did not add the title. This means it may not be the Fates at all displayed, but some other allegory, or even people from Goya’s life portrayed as the Fates. However, the simplest answer if probably the best one. If this is to show the fates then Clotho, the spinner would be the far left figure holding a small figure.

A Possible Analysis of the Fates

Perhaps this figure represents her moulding a new life, or perhaps in an allusion to the Temple of Athena, Clotho holds Nike, victory, in her hands, showing the victory of life over death. The second figure would then be Lachesis, or the alloter, who looks through her glass and measures out a person’s life. The third figure stares straight to the viewer, and has no discerning instrument. The fourth from the left would be Atropos, or the cutter of the thread, holding her shears for that purpose and perhaps waving her hand to the life she has just ending.

If this is truly the Fates, we must ask who the fourth person is: a man sitting between the measure of his life and the cutting of his death. The landscape and the looming, floating figures offer no clear answer or insight into Goya’s thoughts, although it can be said Goya was thinking of the fate of Spain throughout his life.

Another Example

Another dubious titled piece is Asmadea, named for a literary reference. The painting to which is refers, however, is not subtle. The emphasis is on the red, strange mountain, the apparent goal of the floating figures. In between them and their goal, however, are french soldiers shooting at men on horseback. The mountain seems to be transparent, signifying the idea of something, rather than the thing of it. This is Goya’s aspiration to a better world. The iconography is clear when compared to the Choice of Hercules, a common mythical allegory that shows Hercules presented with Vice, who offers pleasures of the earth, and Virtue, who offers wisdom of the sky, by pointing to a circular temple usually placed high on a mountain in the background.

Clearly here the circular structure on the hazy mountain is the Temple of Virtue, the goal of floating figures. In the Choice of Hercules, Hercules’ body is commonly painted to be pointing towards Vice, as bodies are said to do, while his head, the seat of his reason iconographically, is towards Virtue. Seen this way, the floating figures take on a new meaning. The turned head of the figure to the right represents the doubts of the future goal, while the man pointing is the heart of Goya, yearning to reach the top of the mountain and the Temple of Virtue.

Analyzing Goya – We Don’t Have all the Answers

Goya did not limit mystery to his Black Paintings, however. For example a print called The Giant Seated in a Landscape, has an unclear meaning and subject. There is disagreement over whether this is even a true Goya or if it is a studio piece perhaps based off of The Colossus, which has a very similar looming figure. However The Colossus includes fleeing people. Although whether they are fleeing the giant or the giant is defending them from some other unseen monster is unsure. There are many aspects of these works that are unsure.

However both are reminiscent of the popular phantasmagoria during the time. This public entertainment emits lights over a scene painted on glass, projecting a horrendous image to scare the waiting crowd. Originally this utilized a brazier, producing smoke and making the projected image look like it as looming over the crowd, a hazy miracle of spectres. These two giants have the same sense of hazy unreality. While the Giant is a print, Goya painted the Colossus upon the walls of his house, perhaps as a personal phantasmagoria.

If this were so, they would both have scared the crowds: the hazy superimposed lines around the giant’s face suggest movement, perhaps under the influence of projection, the giant would seem to turn his head over and over again, looking back toward the viewer. Similarly, the colossus stands as if emerging from a cloud of smoke and below a fleeing crowd, just like the crowd of supposed viewers would flee from the image in gleeful horror.

Anti-Church Sentiments Not The Answer

Another subject of Goya’s interest was witches and their supposed ceremonies. Earlier, Goya had created a Witches’ Sabbath that is clear in subject, focus, and method of painting. Contrastingly, Goya made a Black Painting also called Witches’ Sabbath with completely rough asage.

These works of Goya’s that escape clear meaning would have had meaning to Goya. Whether lighthearted humor amongpproximate strokes, leaving the witches to be mostly hazy, except for their faces, staring at the goat-man with intent, surprise, fear, and devotion. The former could be a satirical piece about the unthinking masses that support the church, because of how similar the witches’ set up is to a clergy meeting. However the latter painting could not said to be similar to a church scene.

The distorted faces of the witches seem to hold a lot of meaning, but it is unclear exactly Goya’s purpose for creating these works. As always with analysis across time, there is a margin of error. However, looking at the themes Goya kept to throughout his works, it is clear he has a series of values and as kept to them. However Goya spoke, he utilized his talents to speak out against the injustices occurring in the world around him.

1 thought on “Throughout the Life of Francisco Goya”

  1. It’s so important to have creative minds focused on political issues. Not only does it offer a new perspective, it also records history in a new way for future generations of study.


Leave a Comment