Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya

Spanish Painter and Printmaker

Born: March 30, 1746 - Fuendetodos, Spain
Died: April 16, 1828 - Bordeaux, France
"Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels."
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Francisco Goya Signature
"I have had three masters; Nature, Velazquez, and Rembrandt."
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Francisco Goya Signature
"The object of my work is to report the actuality of events."
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Francisco Goya Signature
"My work is very simple. My art reveals idealism and truth."
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Francisco Goya Signature

Summary of Francisco Goya

Goya occupies a unique position within the history of Western art, and is often cited as both an Old Master and the first truly modern artist. His art embodies Romanticism's emphasis on subjectivity, imagination, and emotion, characteristics reflected most notably in his prints and later private paintings. At the same time, Goya was an astute observer of the world around him, and his art responded directly to the tumultuous events of his day, from the liberations of the Enlightenment, to the suppressions of the Inquisition, to the horrors of war following the Napoleonic invasion. Both for its inventiveness and its political engagement, Goya's art had an enormous impact on later modern artists. His unflinching scenes from the Peninsular War presaged the works of Pablo Picasso in the 20th century, while his exploration of bizarre and dreamlike subjects in the Caprichos laid the foundation for Surrealists like Salvador Dalí. Goya's influence extends to the 21st century, as contemporary artists have also drawn inspiration from the artist's grotesque imagery and searing social commentary.


  • Goya's formal portraits of the Spanish Court are painted in a lavish virtuoso style, and highlight the wealth and power of the royal household. On the other hand, the works have been seen to contain veiled, even sly, criticisms of the ineffectual rulers and their circle.
  • Goya is one of the greatest printmakers of all time, and is famous for his achievements in etching and aquatint. He created four major print portfolios during his career: the Caprichos, Proverbios, Tauromaquia, and The Disasters of War. Perhaps even more than his paintings, these works reflect the artist's originality and his true opinions about the social and political events of his day. The subject matter of his etchings veers from dreamlike to grotesque, documentary to imaginary, and humorous to harshly satirical.
  • Women occupy a central place within Goya's oeuvre, and his images of majas (the stylish and outlandish members of Spain's lower classes in the 18th and 19th centuries), witches, and queens are some of his most daring and modern interpretations, depicting women in possession of their own powers, whether political or sexual. Many of these works have led to speculation about Goya's private life, for example his supposed affair with the Duchess of Alba.
  • Goya's late paintings are among the darkest and most mysterious of his creations. His series of 14 paintings from his farmhouse on the outskirts of Madrid (the so-called "Black Paintings") contain images of violence, despair, evil, and longing. They are the pessimistic expressions of an aging, deaf artist who was disillusioned with society and struggling with his own sanity. Their exploration of the dark forces at work in his own subconscious foreshadows the art of the Expressionists and Surrealists in the 20th century.

Biography of Francisco Goya

Detail of <i>The Third of May 1808</i> (completed in 1814) by Goya

To pass safely through the Spanish countryside occupied by the invading French army, Goya coated his works with a layer of whitewash, so that his depictions of the war’s atrocities could escape detection and be revealed later, as he believed, that art "is about one heart telling another heart where he found salvation."

Progression of Art

Charles IV of Spain and His Family (1800)

Charles IV of Spain and His Family

This portrait of the Spanish royal family was made at the height of Goya's career as a court painter. Unlike many of his earlier society and court portraits, which hewed more closely to the genre's conventions of flattery, this painting signals a new direction for the artist in its unflinchingly (some might say grotesquely) realistic depictions of its sitters. The artist based the composition on Velázquez's Las Meninas, which also includes a self-portrait of the artist in the act of painting the royal family. Here, Goya depicts himself in the shadows, standing in front of a large canvas (presumably the same one we now behold) in the far left background.

At the center of the composition, brilliantly lit, is the figure of Queen Maria Luisa, who holds the hand of her son Francisco (in vivid red) and her daughter, Maria Isabel. King Charles stands to her left: widely thought to be an ineffectual leader, his off-center placement provides a clue about the power dynamic of the family as well as their foibles and failings. Indeed, the Queen was believed to hold the real power, along with Prime Minister Manuel Godoy, with whom she had an affair (her illegitimate children are at the far left of the canvas, one in blue, the other in orange). Goya's subversive critique - disguised as a glorifying portrait - of the corruption of Charles IV's reign is further enhanced by the subject of a painting hanging in the background, which shows the Biblical story of the immoral and incestuous Lot and his daughters.

From a technical standpoint, the painting dazzles with detail, especially in the luxurious garments and jewels worn by the family. Goya's brushwork is loose and spontaneous in other areas of the composition. Rembrandt's influence on the artist is apparent in this work, notably in the play of light and shadow and in the overall warm tonality of Goya's palette.

Oil on canvas - Museo Nacional Del Prado

The Black Duchess (1797)

The Black Duchess

Goya was himself the subject of scandal and rumor particularly when it came to his relationships with members of Spain's social elite. For instance, he was suspected of conducting a love affair with the aristocratic Maria Cayetana de Silva, the 13th Duchess of Alba, one of the most famous women in Spain. Their liaison probably began after the death of the Duke of Alba in 1796 (Goya had painted portraits of both husband and wife in 1795). Goya was no doubt taken with the Duchess's haughty beauty, with her curvaceous figure, alabaster complexion, and voluminous black curls.

Painted the year after the Duke's death, this portrait of the Duchess depicts her in mourning black, wearing the traditional costume of a maja, one of the very stylish members of Spain's lower classes known for their bold behavior. In posing as a maja, the Duchess was making an attempt to connect with the masses, despite her elevated social standing. Standing with one hand on her hip, she points toward the ground with her other hand, where Goya has lightly drawn his name in the dun-colored sand. When the painting was restored, the word "solo" was uncovered next to Goya's name, implying that the artist was her only love (though she wears two rings on her hand, one inscribed "Alba", the other "Goya").

Though the painting was commissioned by the Duchess, Goya kept it in his possession for 15 years, indicating his strong attachment to the work and its subject, or, possibly, the Duchess' inability to accept a work that so openly flaunted an affair. Much of the imagery that would populate Goya's prints and drawings following the end of their affair - women as fickle temptresses, men as cuckolded fools, lovers tortured by uncontrollable passions - has lead art historians to suspect that his heart had been broken by the Duchess.

Oil on panel - New York Hispanic Society

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (c. 1797-99)
c. 1797-99

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

Goya is as famous for his prints as he is for his paintings, and is known as one of the great masters of the etching and aquatint techniques. The first of his four major print series was Los Caprichos, which consists of 80 numbered and titled plates. The artist's stated purpose in making the series was to illustrate "the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual." Goya began working on the plates around 1796, after an undiagnosed illness left him deaf and drove him to retreat into a self-imposed isolation.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, plate 43 in the series, depicts a sleeping man (thought to be Goya himself), surrounded by a swarm of strange flying creatures. These are the "monsters" of the title, which invade the mind when reason is surrendered to imagination and dreams. Many of the animals Goya depicts hold symbolic meaning: the owls and bats represent ignorance and evil, while the watchful lynx at the artist's feet - a creature known for its ability to see in darkness - alerts us to the importance of distinguishing fact from fiction. The bat with the goat head may be a satanic reference, and allusions to witchcraft can be found throughout the series. However, as with many of Goya's prints, the intended meaning of the various symbols can be hard to deduce with certainty.

The Caprichos introduces the dark subject matter and mood that would continue to define Goya's work until the end of his life. These works, based on extensive drawings in pen and ink, were expressions of the artist's personal beliefs and ideas, created outside his official work for the court and influential patrons. These prints were profoundly influential to later Surrealists like Dalí in their mingling of realism and dream symbolism.

Etching and aquatint - Private Collection

The Nude Maja (c. 1797-1800)
c. 1797-1800

The Nude Maja

The Nude Maja (La Maja Desnuda) was one of the first paintings Goya made for Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy, one of his primary patrons. The painting features an unknown model, believed to be either Godoy's mistress Pepita Tudo, or the Duchess of Alba, who was Goya's supposed lover. The nude woman is shown reclining on a green velvet chaise with her arms crossed behind her head. Her voluptuous body is angled toward the viewer, and she gazes seductively at the viewer with rosy cheeks that suggest post-coital flush. Goya broke with conventions of the nude in depicting a real woman (not a goddess or allegorical figure) with pubic hair, and having her look directly at the viewer; these daring details would influence later modern artists like Manet, whose Olympia certainly owes a debt to the nude Maja.

Goya also created a companion piece - La Maja Vestida, or The Clothed Maja - which offers a more chaste version of the same female portrait. Both works were confiscated by the Spanish Inquisition, but now proudly hang next to each other in Spain's most important museum - The Prado.

Oil on canvas - Museo Nacional Del Prado

An Heroic feat! With Dead Men! (1810)

An Heroic feat! With Dead Men!

Goya's response to the atrocities of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the six-year conflict that followed was to create a suite of 82 prints. Titled The Disasters of War, the works present a wholesale indictment of wartime, and are divided into three sections: the first shows scenes from the Peninsular War, the second the tragic famine that hit Madrid in 1811-12, and the third a series of allegorical prints lampooning the repressive government of Ferdinand VII. The portfolio includes disturbing scenes of rape, torture, violence, and suffering, and is equally critical of both the French and Spanish factions. Goya had been an eyewitness to the war at its inception, but many of the scenes he depicted were based on either second-hand accounts or the artist's imagination. It is difficult to imagine 20th-century war photography (one thinks of the famous images from the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, for instance) without Goya's Disasters.

In An Heroic Feat! With Dead Men!, plate 39 of the series, Goya depicts three male corpses, whose bodies have been mutilated, castrated, and tied to a tree. Although some have identified the men as French soldiers because of their facial hair, Goya deliberately obscured their nationality in order to illustrate the mutual brutality of Spanish guerilla fighters and French soldiers towards each another. The bodies of the victims are drawn according to classical conventions, with well-proportioned, muscular physiques (even if dismembered and tortured). The undeniable beauty of their forms only enhances the image's tragic impact, and furthers the idea that war and violence are the enemies of beauty and reason.

The Disasters of War could not be published during Goya's lifetime due to the damning political message it contained, and did not appear to the public until 35 years after Goya's death. The prints inspired a corresponding series of miniature sculptures by the British artists and twin brothers, Jake and Dinos Chapman, now in the collection of the Tate.

Etching, lavis, and drypoint - Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Third of May, 1808 (1814)

The Third of May, 1808

Napoleon's armies invaded Spain in 1808, bringing an end to Charles IV's reign (and the Enlightenment Era in Spain) and signaling the start of the Peninsular War. Goya painted The Third of May, 1808 and its companion piece, The Second of May, 1808 for the Spanish government, which commissioned the works to celebrate the expulsion of the French army in 1814. The stated purpose of the pictures was to "perpetuate by means of his brush the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe."

Here we see French soldiers executing unarmed Spaniards in retaliation for their rebellion the day before. The focal point of the composition is the unarmed man in the brightly lit center, standing with his arms raised in surrender. The dead bodies of just-executed rebels lie at his feet, while a group of soon-to-be shot rebels stand behind him. The executioners, whose faces Goya obscures, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their bayonets pointed at the Spanish hero. The anonymity of the French firing squad contrasts with the individualized faces of the victims, and drives home the message of brutal oppression. The painting is considered to be one of the first truly modern images of war, and influenced future works by both Édouard Manet (Execution of Emperor Maximilian) and Pablo Picasso (Massacre in Korea).

Oil on canvas - Museo Nacional del Prado

Witches' Sabbath (1821-23)

Witches' Sabbath

Goya spent his later life largely as a recluse - a lonely, deaf old man completely disillusioned by society. His house outside Madrid, dubbed La Quinta del Sordo, is where he completed his fourteen Black Paintings, applied in oils directly onto the house's plaster walls. Little is known about Goya's intention or thoughts in creating these pictures; he did not write about them in letters, nor did he provide titles for the works. They were intensely private creations, and have come to be seen by art historians as reflections of his declining physical and mental health. They are the expressions of Goya's deepest fears and darkest depression, and are troubling in both their nightmarish content and raw form.

Witches' Sabbath, also referred to as The Great He-Goat, shows the devil in the form of a goat preaching to a group of women, presumably a coven of witches. The devil figure is only seen as a dark silhouette, creating a sense of mystery around the figure. The brushwork, which is much rougher and clumsier than in Goya's earlier works, enhances the raw and even abject quality of the picture, with its huddled cluster of ghastly characters. However, Goya employed the same theatrical contrasts of light and dark as seen in The Third of May, 1808, which here serves only to highlight the repulsive faces of the women. A large portion of the right side of the composition was lost in the transfer from plaster to canvas, and the full meaning and content of the work remains a mystery.

The piece is widely considered to be a criticism of the Inquisition's campaign of intimidation and persecution, which gained renewed force after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814 and the ascension of the anti-Enlightenment king, Ferdinand VII. Goya believed wholeheartedly in the principles of the Enlightenment, which privileged reason above religious or cult superstition, and reviled the politically motivated, oppressive practices of the Inquisition.

Oil on plaster, transferred to canvas - Museo Nacional del Prado

Saturn Devouring His Son (c. 1821-23)
c. 1821-23

Saturn Devouring His Son

Saturn Devouring His Son is another of Goya's "Black Paintings" produced at La Quinta del Sordo. It depicts the Greek myth of Titan Kronus, who ate his sons because he believed he would be overthrown by one of them (Saturn is the Romanized version of Titan). With his small head and bulging eyes, Saturn opens wide his mouth to gnaw on the arm of his son. The corpse's mutilated body (with red blood streaming from his wounds that is almost shockingly vivid amidst the bleak, subterranean palette) recalls similar figures in The Disasters of War. The work is yet another example of Goya's interest in dark and horrific themes, whether documentary or mythical.

The painting has a similar palette to The Third of May, 1808; dark, rich colors set the overall tone, while light draws our attention to the center of the dramatic action. Goya employed flat, broad brushstrokes and thick impasto throughout the composition; the paint appears to have been quickly applied, almost as if in a frenzied or fevered state.

Although some believe the work was inspired by Peter Paul Rubens' painting of the same theme, art historians such as Fred Licht have expressed doubts regarding Goya's true subject. For instance, Saturn is said to have eaten his sons as infants, yet the victim in Goya's painting appears to be an adult. Likewise, the figure's curvaceous hips and legs call into question its gender (could it be a woman?).

One significant aspect of the picture to note is the association between Saturn and "saturnine" temperaments, or melancholy, an important connection given what is known about Goya's disturbed state of mind when he painted these works. At the very least, the painting expresses the deepest, darkest aspects of his psyche, perhaps expressing the artist's own fears of losing his powers in the face of his declining physical and mental health. On a broader political level, the work can be seen within the context of Goya's time as an allegory of reactionary rule. Certainly the oppressive reign of Ferdinand VII signified a refusal to adapt to the evolution of modern life and society, while the persecutions of the Inquisition cannibalized Spain's very soul. However, because Goya did not write about these works and never intended for them to be displayed in public, his true intentions remain a mystery.

Oil on plaster wall, transferred to canvas - Museo Nacional del Prado

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Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Francisco Goya Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 06 Mar 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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