Francisco Goya

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Francisco Goya




Birth and Early Career. Born in Fuendetodos, Spain, Francisco Goya was a son of a small landowner who could provide only a rudimentary education for his son. As a boy, Francisco showed a keen interest in and talent for drawing and painting, first developing his craft in copying works by masters such as Rembrandt (1606–1669) and Spanish court painter Diego Velasquez (1599–1660). At the age of fourteen Goya painted a series of frescoes for the local church in Fuendetodos. The next year he enteredthe San Louis Academy in Zaragoza. At the age of seventeen he went to Madrid, where he was influenced by the great Venetian Rococo artist Giovanni Tiepolo (1696–1770). Goya also met the Neoclassical painter Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–1779). In 1770 Goya ventured to Italy, reportedly working his way to Rome as a bullfighter. Once in Rome he apparently painted little, but he did complete a full-length por-trait of Pope Benedict XIV, painted in a single sitting that lasted only a few hours. After Goya’ return to Spain in 1771, he was asked to design a fresco for the basilica of Nuestra Senora del Pilar in Zaragoza. His first important commission, the work was completed in 1772. The following year he married Josefa Bayeu, a sister of Francisco Bayeu (1734–1795), personal painter to King Charles III. Goya and his wife had twenty children, only one of whom survived their father. In 1775 Mengs commissioned Goya to make sketches for tapestries destined for the Spanish royal palaces, the Prado and Escorial, introducing the twenty-nine-year-old artist to a world in which he was sur-rounded by the princely and most aristocratic society of Spain. Continuing to draw designs for tapestries, Goya finished fourteen in 1778 alone.

A Master of Portraiture. After the death of Charles III in 1788, Goya was appointed official painter to the court of Charles IV. A series of genre paintings and portraits quickly established him as the leading Spanish painter of his day. As a portrait painter, he became known as one of the finest Romantic artists of Europe. A hallmark of Romanticism was individualism, and in so many of his portraits—including one of himself painted in 1790—he captured the elusive quality of individual personalities. This accomplishment is all the more remarkable because Goya worked rapidly. As his son later recalled, “he paints only in one sitting which sometimes lasts up to 10 hours, but never in the evening; and in order to heighten the effect of a portrait, he adds the final touches at night under artificial light.” Hundreds of luminariesposed for Goya, and above all he deftly captured on canvas all the great ladies of the court. A serious illness in 1792 left Goya deaf, prompting a disaffection with the world that changed and deepened his art. He ceased to be interested in pleasing his subjects with flattering portraits. Instead, he revealed their innermost characteristics—both strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the best example is his portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate (1810?), which depicts a slightly coquettish woman who is also proud and faintly melancholy. Contrast and contradiction (another Romantic characteristic) marked the portrait of La Condesa de Chinchon (1800), a tender woman who looks at the viewer from the face almost of a child. The frail frame of her upper body contrasts starkly with the full dress that dominates the bottom and fore-ground of the portrait. Goya also explored etching as a medium, and in 1799 he published a series of them called Los Caprichos (Caprices). Daringly dedicated to the king, these etchings use corrosive and bitter humor to mock society’ vices, frivolities, and absurdities.

In The Deaf Man’ House. After becoming deaf, Goya withdrew from court and retired to La Quinta del sordo (The Deaf Man’House). By the turn of the century he had turned inward, but he continued to comment with increasing ruthlessness on the frightful horrors that beset humankind in that supposed age of Enlightenment. Napoleon’ invasion and conquest of Spain in 1808 instilled in Goya a deep hatred for what he considered a brutal and reactionary political regime that—far from championing the rights of man and citizen espoused by the French Revolution—was crushing them underfoot. Between 1810 and 1814 the Napoleonic regime’violent suppression of Spanish nationalistic opposition became the subject of Goya’ best-known series of etchings, The Horrors of War, and two of his greatest paintings, The Second of May, 1808 and The Third of May, 1808, both completed in 1814. The paintings expose the pointless brutality of war, depicting no heroes, just dispassionate killers and hapless victims. When Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne of Spain in 1814, he invited Goya to his court. Unhappy, totally deaf, and growing blind, he declined the offer. Isolated and melancholy in The Deaf Man’ House, Goya produced his nightmarish and visionary Black Paintings (1820–1822) and covered his walls with them. Exploration of the demonic was a characteristic of Romantic art, and Goya confirmed his fascination with it in his depictions of witches’ sabbaths. Paintings such as Saturn Devouring One of His Children (1821–1823) also announce a Romantic departure from the past through the inversion of Classicism. A mythological subject (typical of Classicism) is rendered in a dramatically different way. While the form of Classicism was symmetrical and regular in its proportions, in his painting Goya grotesquely distorted his figures. In 1824 he left Madrid for Bordeaux, France, where he produced his acclaimed series of bull-fighting lithographs. He died in Bordeaux in 1828.

Transitional Figure. Like many Romantics, Goya was influenced by the Enlightenment but also reacted against it.Like Voltaire and other Enlightenment figures, he despised irrationality—including the superstition, obscu rantism and intolerance of the Christian Church that was exposed most visibly in the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1478 and continued, with some interruptions, until 1834. He was a lifelong defender of individual freedom and the fundamental rights of individuals, sharp-eyed caricaturist who mercilessly used his art to expose the absurdities and vileness of the worldaround him. Yet, he also gave rein to an unbridled imagination, conforming to the Romantic model of the inspired genius. In effect, Goya was a man of his time and a keen and clear-sighted commentator on it. Like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) or Ludwig van Beethoven (1770—1827), he was a transitional figure between the Enlightenment and the Romantic age, and he revealed in his art the deep contradictions of Spain, and indeed of Europe, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Pierre Gassier and Juliet Wilson, The Life and Complete Work of Francisco Goya (New York: Reynal, 1971).

Fred Licht, Goya in Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973).

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