Born in 1746, Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya, often referred to as ‘the father of modern art,’ is considered one of the most important artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Before his death in 1828, Goya produced a varied body of work, encompassing styles like Rococo and Romanticism, and creating paintings both political and personal in subject matter. We explore ten must-know works by Goya, from his famous war-inspired works to his hauntingly intense Black Paintings.
Perhaps Goya’s most famous work, The Third of May 1808 is a chilling depiction of the atrocities of war showing the execution of Madrilenian patriots at the hands of Napoléon Bonaparte’s army during the Peninsula War. The painting’s legacy is still felt today – many art critics have cited its influence in works like French painter Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian and fellow Spanish artist Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. As art historian Kenneth Clark once said of the work, ‘this is the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject and in intention; and it should be a model for the socialist and revolutionary painting of the present day.’
Goya’s Black Paintings are a series of 14 compositions that the artist painted on the walls of his farmhouse, Quinta del Sordo, on the outskirts of Madrid between 1819 and 1823. Created after Goya had survived two almost fatal illnesses, the paintings are so-called due to the artist’s use of dark pigments and their somber themes. They were transferred onto canvas in 1873 before being given to Madrid’s Museo del Prado in 1899. Of the 14 Black Paintings, Saturn Devouring His Son – depicting a Greek myth in which Saturn, trying to break a prophecy about his downfall at the hands of one of his sons, eats his own children – is probably the best-known and is featured in our 17 Horrifyingly Gross Works of Art to Scare You S**tless article.
Thought to have been commissioned by reviled Spanish prime minister Manuel de Godoy and featuring his young mistress Pepita Tudó as model, The Naked Maja is noted for the direct, unabashed gaze of its nude subject and was one of the most controversial paintings of its time. In 1808, the painting was one of a number deemed indecent and confiscated from Godoy’s collection by investigators for the Spanish Inquisition, which resulted in Goya being questioned, though the artist was able to evade imprisonment after it was noted the work followed in the traditions of earlier nude works like Titian’s Danaë series and Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. Since 1901, The Naked Maja and its companion The Clothed Maja – a later version of the painting in which the more modest model is fully-clothed – have hung side by side in Madrid’s Museo del Prado.
Not only one of the most celebrated painters of the modern era, Goya was a talented printmaker too, evident in Los Caprichos – a series of 80 aquatint etchings the artist began crafting in 1794, and which were published as an album in 1799. The etchings are a sweeping critique of 18th–century Spanish society, with the clergy, the ruling classes, pedagogy and superstition being just a few to come under Goya’s fire. The third plate in the Los Caprichos series, Here comes the bogey-man, sees a mother scaring her children with the Coco (a Spanish folkloric bogey-man figure) and is a critique of superstition and teaching based on fear.
A later series of Goya aquatint etchings, The Disasters of War is comprised of 80 prints created between 1810 and 1820, noted as some of the first artistic works to portray war as not chivalrous and noble, but brutal and barbaric. Goya began creating the series shortly after the events of 3rd May 1808 (as depicted in his famous painting of the same name) and the subsequent Peninsula War, after witnessing atrocities on both sides of the conflict, though The Disasters of War prints were not published until 35 years after his death. ‘Unhappy mother!,’ which depicts a small girl sobbing as the corpse of her mother is taken away, is thought by many to be series’ most powerful image.
During the latter part of the 18th century, Goya was a prolific court painter and the preferred artist of Spain’s royalty and aristocracy. Amongst his most famous royal portraits is The Duchess of Alba. Painted in 1797, shortly after its subject María Cayetana de Silva was widowed, the work depicts the duchess in black mourning clothes and styled as a ‘maja’ (an archaic term for the Spanish lower classes), most likely to portray her as a ‘woman of the people.’ Today, The Duchess of Alba hangs in The Hispanic Society of America in New York City.
Another of Goya’s Black Paintings, The Drowning Dog is an eerily haunting work showing a dog seemingly half-submerged in quicksand and looking anxiously towards something just outside the composition. The dog’s figure is almost dwarfed by a vast expense of gloomy, ochre-colored sky. While Saturn Devouring His Son might be the most famous of the Black Paintings, The Drowning Dog is certainly the series’ most enigmatic – some interpret it as conveying the inevitability of death, and others as a symbol of isolation and hopelessness, but perhaps late art critic and Goya biographer Robert Hughes put it best when he said of the work, ‘we do not know what it means, but its pathos moves us on a level below narrative.’
Another famous work from Goya’s court painting career is The Family of Carlos IV painted shortly after the king made the artist his official first chamber painter. Some interpretations of the painting place emphasis on the placing of its subjects – while Carlos IV appears slightly off-center, his wife María Luisa of Parma is centrally placed, perhaps hinting at the true power play in their relationship – but most agree that the painting is undoubtedly an homage to Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Compare the two paintings and you’ll find several similarities, like the inclusion of the artists themselves in the background of the compositions.
Also known as Witches’ Sabbath, The Great He-Goat is another work from Goya’s haunting Black Paintings series and shows the devil in goat form presiding over a group of ghoulish witches and warlocks while, to the right, a young girl in black sits apart from the rabble – some say in defiance, some say waiting to be initiated into the coven. Interestingly, over 140 cm of the original composition were removed during restorations in the late 1870s and the young girl’s position altered significantly from a central to a peripheral point, which may warp some aspects of the painting’s original meaning, though many agree The Great He-Goat is a satire of the superstitious tendencies of Goya’s time.
At several points in his life, Goya was racked with illness – in 1792, he was struck down with a sudden sickness that left him completely deaf and by 1819, he fell seriously ill again at the age of 73, though thankfully his doctor, Eugenio Garc’a Arrieta, was there to nurse the artist back to health. Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta, which today hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, was a gift from Goya to thank the doctor for saving his life. The inclusion of an inscription at the bottom of the canvas suggests the painting was created in the style of an ex-voto – a religious painting popular in Spain expressing gratitude.