Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828) was a Spanish painter and printmaker. Today, he is regarded as the greatest painter of the Romantic Period, though Enlightenment and Romanticism still tried to get a foothold in Spain of his time and the influence of the Classicism and realism of his training remain immanent in his work. Yet, more than any other artist of his period he exemplifies the Romantic value of the expression of the artist’s feelings and of his personal imaginative world. This personal imaginative and dark world of his could of course have been the result of a progressive brain condition – some say paranoid dementia. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was one of the greatest and his work influenced others like Manet, Picasso and Francis Bacon. He is known for subversive and imaginative elements, delicate tonalities and a bold handling of colors.
Goya started his career at age 14 as an apprentice of the painter Jose Luzan. He clashed with his master and tried twice to enter the Royal Academy of Fine Arts without success. Winning the second prize in a painting competition in Rome gave him finally enough credit back in Spain to find some work. It wasn’t a bad move either to marry the sister of a well-connected member of the Royal Academy – Bayeu. It landed him the job as a painter of designs at the Royal Tapestry Factory. This work wasn’t that prestigious, yet there his talent was noticed and he gained access to the court and a nomination to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
Within years, Goya became the go to guy for the royalty for portraits, even gained a paid position and rose to First Court Painter. His portraits are known for their disinclination to flatter and their lack of visual diplomacy. In other words, he was rather bold and held a mirror into the face of aristocracy like a court jester; yet, those he criticized were too thick to see it and even liked him for his fresh style. Modern interprets call his portraits satire and remark on the way he comments on the corruption and decay prevailing at the court.
Between 1808 and 1814 Spain and France fought the Peninsula War. Goya kept outwardly neutral, but processed his experiences in his art. Still, his relations to the Spanish court were never the same, even after Ferdinand VII was reinstated as King of Spain. Goya first moved to a country house outside Madrid before he left Spain for France in 1824 because of the monarchy’s anti-liberal political and social stands and because of his disappointment in his fellow liberals.
His work arc reflects the darkening of his temper through the ages. The initial rejection probably hurt him deeply and left him a bitter commentator. Sometimes between 1792/93 Goya fell severely ill. Afterwards he was left to deal with a progressive deafness. As a reaction he became withdrawn and introspective. He went through a physical and mental breakdown shortly after the French declaration of war on Spain. Tinnitus, episodes of imbalance and progressive deafness might point to a developing paranoid dementia due to earlier brain damage that reflects in his art, culminating in the Black Paintings, which he produced near the end of his life. He became reclusive and produced these intense, frightening and obscure paintings of insanity, madness, and fantasy. These Black Paintings prefigure the expressionist movement.
Nude and Clothed Majas: These were the first totally profane, life-sized female nude in Western Art.
Fantasy and Invention: He painted these eleven small pictures on tin. They document a significant change of style from gauzy, popular carnival to dark fantasy and nightmare. His ‘Yard with Lunatics’ is a horrifying and imaginary vision of loneliness, fear and social alienation. The condemnation of violence against prisoners is a reoccurring theme in Goya’s later paintings.
Caprichos: 80 prints, created around the time when Goya fell severely ill, that were published in 1799 and depict dark visions which are bleak in nature and demonstrate the artist’s sharp satirical wit. They also show a thread of the macabre that runs through his work.
The Disasters of War: These 81 aquatint prints produced in 1810 are a protest to the cruelties and violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, the subsequent Peninsula War and the setback for the liberal cause through the reinstatement of the Bourbon monarchy 1814. They were not published until 1863. Their themes: battlefield horrors, death and destruction, effects of the famine.
Tauromaquia: 33 etchings that were published in 1816 about the art of Corrida/ bullfighting.
Black Paintings: 14 oil paintings executed directly on Goya’s house’s walls near Madrid with references to mythology, witchcraft and war. The series has been described as “the most essential to our understanding of the human condition in modern times, just as Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling is essential to understanding the tenor of the 16th century”. They are housed by the Prado in Madrid today. But the process of transferring them from the walls onto something more transportable damaged them heavily and the reconstruction is – though impressive – by far not of the quality of what Goya created.