Forty years ago in Madrid’s Prado Art Museum, I discovered the early 19th-century Black Paintings of Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (Goya). They were deeply disturbing, but also incredibly intriguing. I wondered about their message and their meaning. Why had he painted them? I assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that the Spanish artist had gone mad in his old age, or at least flirted with serious depression and/or insanity.
When confronted by mental illness and homelessness, I always get the same thought: “There but by the grace of God go I.” There is an extremely fine line between sanity and insanity. And its a subject area that is very fruitful for artists of all kinds. And its not unusual for artists to cross the line from sanity to insanity (and perhaps iterate back and forth) in their personal lives.
According to art historian and critic Robert Hughes, “It is not so long ago, for instance, that most people who thought about Goya considered him mad. The assumption was based on Goya’s deep interest in insanity, which can readily be deduced from (among other things) the . . . dark, enigmatic paintings (the so-called Black Paintings) that adorned his home in Madrid, the Quinta del Sordo.” He goes on to point out that you don’t need to be insane to be interested in the subject of mental illness. And Hughes feels that this may have been the case with Goya. However, after examining the Black Paintings, one must believe that Goya was, at the very least, deeply troubled in his waning years.
In 1819, with the political situation deteriorating in Spain, Goya (age 72) sequestered himself in a two-story, rectangular farm house outside of Madrid. Here he covered the walls with dramatic works of art. (There are several website that provide of virtual tours of the paintings and of how they may have been arranged in his home.) At first, Goya’s artistic endeavors were not unlike some of his previous works, but eventually they turned darker and more troubling. Living through the violence and turbulence of post-Nepoleanic Spain, Goya developed nightmarish concerns about humanity. To further complicate his interpretation of the world, he had been completely deaf since age 46.
Goya proceeded to decorate the walls of “Quinta del Sorda” or “Villa of the Deaf Man” (ironically named after the previous owner) with some of most intense, disturbing images ever conceived. Goya, himself, did not title his works; but art critics and historians have given them names. While some of the Black Paintings anticipate modernity some are derivative of his early work, only in a more grotesque form.
The best known of the Black Paintings is Saturn Devouring His Son. Fearing a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him, Saturn (Roman God) ate each of his children at birth. Goya depicts this act of cannibalism with savagery. Perhaps because of its lack of sublty, this is my least favorite. One can imagine Saturn being an indictment of a cruel Spanish monarchy.
Goya’s painting of a solitary dog is perhaps the most memorable of his dark paintings; it is impressive in its aesthetic simplicity. The dog is so solitary and alone, like it is has been abandoned in some Dantesque version of hell. The dog is sinking in mire (?) and backdropped by an ochre-tinted light. Is the latter a vision of some horrific war or the result of a wildfire or some other natural or man-made disaster? Or is the dog a “judas goat” waiting to guide lost souls into the depths of hell (I think not)? But no matter what the intent, the painting creates a serious feeling of isolation and abandonment.
The Dog painting is absolutely original, an artistic work with no obvious precursors. In many ways it seems to anticipate 20th-century art and existentialism. It is a very modern work piece.
Duel with Clubs shows Goya’s dramatic use of different shades of blue and red. The two combatants, deep in mud, are pummeling away. Is this an indictment of the internecine fighting occuring in Spain during Goya’s time? Who knows, but the painting is certainly susceptible to a very modern interpretation. Think Bosnia, Kosovo, Ireland, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Afganistan, Haiti, etc.
In 1823, a tyrannical monarch, Fernando VII, was re-established in Spain. Goya went into further seclusion. A year later, he fled to Bordeaux, France, and stayed there in self-imposed exile for the remainder of his life.
Although Goya probably did not intend anyone other than himself and friends to view the Black Paintings, they were eventually taken off the walls of his abandonned home and transferred to canvas. The owner subsequently donated the canvases to the Spanish state, and Goya’s dark legacy is now on display at the Prado.