Goya’s Black Paintings
Harsh, but Honest

Kimberly Court
October 27, 2007
UH 440


Goya created unsettling, but magnificent artwork to illustrate his honest views of humanity during a turbulent time.

I. Background
Family, Education, Early Career, Life Changes

II. Political Upheaval
How the events during Goya’s young art career affected his opinion of humanity

III. Quinta del Sordo
The importance of Goya’s residence to the Black Paintings

IV. Black Paintings
Specifics concerning Goya’s work and their related themes

V. Black Painting Considerations
Analysis of the Black Paintings

Goya was harsh for a reason and will inhabit a spot in art history forever

Talented. Crippled. Honest. Three words which accurately describe Francisco Goya y Lucientes, the famed Spanish painter and portraitist of the 1800s. There is no doubt that much of Goya’s appeal in modern times comes from the controversial and unsettling “Black Paintings” which served as décor for his country home during his elderly years. While initial interpretations of the somber-themed artwork may suggest that Goya was disturbed and angry, the educated understanding is that he was far from crazed. After succumbing to permanent deafness as a result of a serious illness in 1972, suffering years of hardship during the violent Napoleonic Wars, and struggling with his disgust of man’s treatment of one another, Goya found relief only in his painting. Particularly good examples are Saturn Devouring His Son, The Witches’ Sabbath, and The Pilgrimage of Saint Isidore which share the same dark and mournful themes. Strewing his feelings upon vast canvases in his secluded home allowed Goya to create unsettling, but magnificent artwork to illustrate his honest views of humanity during a turbulent time.

Any one person or historian can study a single piece of historical artwork and deduce personal meaning. However, it is much more rewarding to understand the artist and his work. Artistic inspiration comes in many forms and from many places, one being childhood. Goya was born into a humble Spanish family on March 30, 1746 in Fuentedos, a village near Saragossa, Spain (Jamieson 2005). His father, Jose Goya, was a master gilder who provided Goya and his mother, Gracia Lucientes, with middle class luxuries. Goya’s portrait work suggests that he identified with the “common people” similar in status to his upbringing; they served as Goya’s portrait subjects even when he obtained Painter-to-the-King status later in life (Junquera 2003).

In his youth, Goya was educated by Escolapian fathers in a monastic school. Their mission, to encourage students “to observe, to make one’s own deductions from personal experience, to discover the flexibility of the mind, and to assume responsibility for assimilating as much knowledge as possible”, was vital in the development of Goya’s self-taught style of painting (Jamieson 2005). After brief study in a Saragossa university, Goya’s two rejection letters in 1763 and 1766 for a scholarship from Madrid’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (the Royal Academy) encouraged him to travel to Italy instead (Jamieson 2005). Goya’s travels in 1770 led him to Madrid where he met a very influential teacher, Francisco Bayeu. As a result of their close relationship, Goya was introduced to Bayeu’s sister, Josefa, whom Goya married in 1773 (Junquera 2003).

Networking in Madrid’s art world of 1774, with the aid of Bayeu, led Goya to paint cartoons for the tapestries of Royal Tapestry Work in Santa Barbara; tapestry work was considered to be the most significant pathway into court circles at the time (Junquera 2003). By 1780, Goya was finally accepted into the Royal Academy and in time was granted commissions for group and individual portraits by the Royal family and other members of their circle (Jamieson 2005). The Royals as well as the public were clearly taken with the spontaneity revealed in Goya’s paintings, earning him the reputation as being a fashionable portraitist for all of the classes (Glendinning 1975). Goya’s evident skill led him to be appointed Painter-to-the-King by Carlos III in 1786 as well as in 1789 by Carlos IV (Jamieson 2005). Through his role as Painter-to-the-King, Goya was exposed to a world where politics and one’s personal life were intertwined, whether he wanted them too or not. Great examples of the intimacy between his work and politics are El Dos de Mayo and El Tres de Mayo painted in 1814. Goya had been commissioned by King Ferdinand to paint canvases commemorating the events of the 2nd and 3rd of May 1808, during which an insurgency against French troops was subsequently executed (Jamieson 2005).

In the midst of positive changes in Goya’s life, the year 1792 brought considerable hardships. During October at the age of 46, Goya fell extremely ill. The illness, which some historians believe to have been caused by the chemicals in his paint leading to saturnism or lead poisoning, brought him very close to death (Junquera 2003). Goya survived but was left permanently deaf, depriving him of two great loves other than painting- music and conversation. In a way, the Black Paintings served as a way for Goya to relieve his frustrations with his deafness, resulting in his isolation and distinctive style. Despite this setback, Goya was continually rewarded with honors by being named Director of Painting at the Royal Academy in 1795 as well as becoming the first painter to the Spanish Court in 1799 (Jamieson 2005).

Political Upheaval
There is no doubt that the turbulent politics in Spain during the early 1800s contributed to the dark nature of the Black Paintings. Napoleon’s reign in Europe created a particularly great disturbance. The era began with the breaking of the Treaty of Fontainebleau signed on October 27, 1807 with France concerning Portuguese territories desired by Spain. Instead of delivering the agreed promises, Napoleon ordered his French commanders to violently seize Spanish fortresses on February 1808 (Jamieson 2005). The resulting bloodshed on the Iberian Peninsula from 1808 to 1814 was dubbed the Peninsular Wars, forever staining Goya’s perception of humanity.

Once Napoleon took political control over Spain, the throne was left to his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. King Joseph initially had a good rapport with the Spanish afrancesados- “Frenchified” Spaniards who believed that the French influence would bring modernization and liberty, including the abolition of the Spanish Inquisition. Goya was one of them. However, the brutalities that followed made it difficult to have any political partiality. An uprising as a result of the crowning of King Joseph grew strong in Madrid and attacked the French occupation on May 2, 1808 (Encyclopedia Britannica 2007). The following day, the French army shot hundreds of Madrid citizens in retaliation. Guerilla warfare continued as Spanish mobs killed 338 French citizens in Valencia and captured their ships in Cádiz. This guerrilla warfare was the inspiration behind Goya’s famous Los Desastres de la Guerra known in English as The Disasters of War (Jamieson 2005).

After Napoleon’s defeat and the restoration of King Ferdinand to the throne of Spain in 1814, Spanish afrancesados were targeted for allegedly bringing upon the Napoleonic occupation. These liberals would have been protected by the Cádiz Constitution of 1812, but it had been rejected by King Ferdinand earlier in his reign. A period of oppression of liberals and sympathizers of the French incurred and many were identified, disgraced, and punished either with abuse or being stripped from their titles. Goya was one professional who was examined by the King, but it was not too long until his position and salary as a court painter was reconfirmed (Jamieson 2005). In March 1820, the amounting issues with King Ferdinand’s reign sparked a mutiny of the troops who called for the reinstatement of the Cádiz Constitution of 1812. The revolt was both brutal and successful (at least for three years), abolishing the Spanish Inquisition on March 20, 1820 (Encyclopedia Britannica 2007). But it was too late. Goya lost faith in humanity. His artistic eye caught the violent and horrific nature of people. This frustration was stored until it could be captured on canvas in the Black Paintings.

Quinta del Sordo
Goya’s country home, which is known by many as the Quinta del Sordo, served as his refuge. In his old age (early seventies) and deafness, Goya highly valued his privacy. Thus, he moved out of the politically unsound metropolis of Madrid to its outskirts on the west bank of the Manzanares River in February of 1819. The house was originally owned by another deaf man, explaining why its translated name is “country home of the deaf man” (Jamieson 2005). During September of 1823, Goya sold the Quinta del Sordo to his grandson, Mariano Goya, along with all of his personalized Black Paintings.

In addition to escaping political persecution, Goya was thought to have desired a private home for his withdrawal in order to continue his alleged relationship with a woman named Leocadia Zorilla de Weiss. A portrait of his love interest was found amidst other Blank Paintings. There was also competition for his highly regarded position as an artist. Under King Ferdinand’s rule and repression of Spanish liberals, Goya’s influence as court painter lessened, making the way for Vicente Lopez (Bozal 2005). While Goya never officially lost his title, one could not argue that remaining in that position was the same ever again.

The peculiar thing about the Black Paintings is that they were painted directly onto the walls of his home. Two main rooms of the Quinta del Sordo housed the fourteen Black Paintings; seven paintings per room. Most are painted over preexisting landscape murals which have not been determined whether they were painted by Goya himself (Glendinning 1975). Removal of the paintings from the home was a difficult task, seeing as they were painted in the Fresco Secco style, a method which consists of oils on white preparation of calcium sulfate with glue as adhesive and deteriorates easily. Understandably, restoration procedures were necessary to preserve the art (Junquera 2003). But efforts were taken too far. Early photographs by a photographer named Laurent reveal original details of the paintings that are no longer visible in the paintings. Most of the damage is blamed on the restoration expert, Salvador Martinez Cubells of the Museo del Prado (1874), who is accused of modifying Goya’s work to reflect the taste of the times and his own “artistic” inclinations (Glendinning 1975). This caused a great deal of discussion about the true form of Goya’s painted subjects.

Black Paintings
The beauty of the Black Paintings is that they were obviously not intended for the public to see. Goya received no commissions for his work and therefore had to cater to no one’s wishes but his own. These private painting provided a glimpse into what one could call “...a visual reflection of the condition of mankind and the world” (Bozal 2005). This reflection is far from optimistic or positive, obvious when one considers the somber themes and dark color scheme common among his Black Paintings.

There is no doubt that the themes of the Black Paintings are dark in nature. Additionally, the pieces are unified by the browns and blacks used primarily to depict the dreary, night settings and gaping, distorted faces of the internally tortured subjects (Glendinning 1975). Consider how relevant these themes are to a person who has been caught-up in such unalleviated personal anguish. Some art historians claim to see reflections of old age and death within these paintings. Others, like Valeriano Bozal, author of the Museo del Prado gallery guide Goya: Black Paintings, are “…inclined to see the Black Paintings as the result of a process of generalization determined by the evolution of political events and the artist’s own personal and professional situation”. Both have their merits.

A prime example of one such somber-themed painting is Saturn Devouring His Son (1820 – 1823). The painting depicts Saturn in a crouched position, violently eating a child against a dark background. The god looks vicious with bulging eyes, wild hair, and tight fists dripping with blood (Appendix 1a).

To a newcomer of the Spanish art scene, the subject of the painting is grotesque and indecently portrays cannibalism to the public. However, the scene represents Goya’s interpretation of the ancient story of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture who is called Cronus in Greek mythology. The Greek myth of Cronus tells of the cruel nature of Cronus’s father, Ouranos (Father Sky), toward the creatures of the Earth and his wife, Gaia (Mother Earth). Gaia pleaded with Cronus to end his father’s reign, giving him a scythe as a weapon. With it, Cronus castrated his father. The blood from the wound fertilized the Earth, giving birth to the Erinyes (Furies), Giants, and the Meliads (Ash-Tree Nymphs) (Bozal 2005). Cronus then married his sister, Rhea. It was prophesied that one day Cronus would lose power when one of his children would depose him. To prevent this from happening, he devoured all but one child as soon as they were born. That one child was Zeus. When he reached adulthood, Zeus fed Cronus a poison to vomit out his siblings Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon. Zeus then began the battle against his father referred to as the “Clash of the Titans” (MSN Encarta 2006).

The ancient myth clears away assumptions that Goya was a horribly distasteful painter. So does the fact that he was not the first to attempt a painted interpretation of the scene. Peter Paul Rubens (1639) painted Saturn in a crouched position with a scythe in hand, tearing away at the flesh of a small child against a celestial-type background (Appendix 1b) (Glendinning 1975). The sense one gets from the painting is that it is mythological in nature and from a story point-of-view it is understandable for Saturn to destroy his children out of jealousy and fear. Therefore, the tone is less threatening than compared to Goya’s interpretation. Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son is curious because the indicators of a mythological painting are not present: no constellations and no scythe. These indicators are replaced by a dark, ominous background and frightening characters. Evidently, Goya wished to focus on the realistic barbaric implications of the myth; a scene such as this would be even more bloody and terrible in real life. This type of improvisation is characteristic of Goya’s style. Goya surely has emphasized this due to what he has seen humans do to each other. Patricia Wright, author of Eyewitness Art: Goya, argues that “Rubens's Saturn is outwardly more refined than Goya's, but remains the more horrific of the two. The viewer's sympathy is directed toward the baby, yet to be eaten, and Saturn appears a cruel and corrupt power” (Art of Goya 2006). One may agree with this idea seeing that Saturn’s crazed facial expressions in Goya’s piece capture the most attention.

One of the most obvious deviations from the myth is the fact that the body of the individual being consumed is not child-like. Rather, the legs are shapely, slender, and long. As the body is turned away from the viewer and has no head, the sex of the individual is debatable. However, many art historians suggest that the individual is female due to its frame. This presents an interesting debate. Why has Goya placed an adult female in the mutilating hands of Saturn? Nigel Glendinning, a Professor of Spanish at London’s Queen Mary College in the 1970s, argues that Goya was motivated to use a young adult in his painting because of this personal frustration with his old age. Being fervently sick and unlucky in true love had much to do with Goya’s artistic choice (Glendinning 1975). Attacking the young adult with crazed enthusiasm represents his conflict with time and how it changes people, more specifically: himself.

The Witches’ Sabbath (Appendix 2) is admired by art historians because it serves as a prime example of Goya’s artistic style as well as a topic for debate. The scene depicted in the painting is one of a gathering of “witches” around a demon, or some ecclesiastical authority, which has taken the form of a goat (Bozal 2005). Similar to Goya’s other Black Paintings, The Witches’ Sabbath is clearly set at a time after dusk when only darkness can be seen in the background. This darkness obscures the characters’ location, leading one to assume that they are isolated. The distorted, ugly faces of the people in the audience with gaping mouths in awe or terror are also characteristic of other Black Paintings. In this piece, they give a sense of mass and motion to the canvas even though the subjects within it are seated and at attention (Junquera 2003). These faces indicate that the meaning of their gathering is a somber one.

While it is generally agreed that the subject is a gathering of witches, there is much more to interpret. Is the girl in the chair in the right corner of the painting, draped in black, awaiting initiation into the world of witchcraft or is she just an attendee? She appears to be quiet and reserved. Is she in harms way? Who is the figure in white in the center of the painting? The closeness of the figure in white to the demon indicates a relationship between the two (Art of Goya 2006). An assistant, perhaps? There is no right or wrong answer, seeing as Goya never explained his rationale to anyone who has recorded it. Regardless, all interpretations indicate morbidity.

The Saint Isidore Pilgrimage was painted between 1819 and 1823 on the wall of the downstairs room next to The Witches’ Sabbath (Appendix 3a). The painting incorporates many of the common characteristics of the Black Paintings; distorted faces, essence of pain, mourning, and despair shrouded in darkness. People of all class distinctions, from beggars to socialites, depicted in the advancing line are assumed to be returning after paying respect to Saint Isidore (Junquera 2003). Saint Isidore (1070-1130) is the patron saint of Madrid, Spain as well as Leon, Saragosa, and Seville. Additionally, he is considered the patron of farmers, peasants, day laborers, and rural communities who celebrate the life of Saint Isidore by feasting on April 4th (Catholic Community Forum 2007).

The agony of the people in this painting is of interest because it contrasts significantly with one of Goya’s earlier cartoon sketches related to Saint Isidore, The Meadow of the Hermitage of Saint Isidore (Appendix 3b). In 1788, this cartoon was intended to be converted into a tapestry for King Carlos III, but the king’s sudden death halted the project. The tone is clearly happy and festive against a bright blue sky. Here in The Saint Isidore Pilgrimage, the characters are hysterical with mourning as they move towards the viewer, mouths gaping with horror and sadness, their pain almost audible. Even the setting has changed and no longer represents a desirable destination (Jamieson 2005). This contrast shows a change in Goya’s demeanor. Something happened to Goya’s outlook in life. It is not hard to conceive that the inhumanity which plagued society during the Napoleonic Wars and the derogation of Goya’s health are to blame.

Black Painting Considerations
Until 1878 when the Black Paintings received their initial notoriety, Goya had unanimously been perceived as a completely spontaneous painter. The Black Paintings are examples of Goya’s whimsical nature being expressed with an even greater freedom (Glendinning 1975). However, one may wonder how disturbed a man must be to express himself in such a vulgar manner. Bozal makes an interesting argument that because there is evidence of hard labor and effort devoted to the Black Paintings, there is little indication that Goya suffered from depression. In support of Goya’s sanity, Glendinning made reference in his 1975 inaugural lecture of the idea that despite the ugly subjects, they were arranged in idealizing/beautiful compositional patterns. One example is Goya’s pyramid groupings like those in idyllic neoclassical pictures. Glendinning goes further and argues that the scenes were purposely designed to shock Goya’s visitors, possibly to shock them into the truths of humanity which were haunting him. Goya’s guests could not hear him properly due to his deafness so he let his paintings speak for him.

It is important to understand that this collection of paintings was not dubbed “The Black Paintings” until 1928, many years after Goya’s death (Junquera 2003). Because the paintings were created directly on the walls of his private home, it is likely that Goya did not intend the public, other than family and privileged guests, to see the collection. It was, however, inevitable that the paintings would see the light of day. In 1870, removal from the Quinta del Sordo and subsequent restoration took place to prepare for their unveil at the Paris Exhibition of 1878 (Glendinning 1975). Not naming the collection of paintings himself may lead one to believe that the paintings have been entirely misinterpreted. On the other hand, one cannot disagree that the name accuracy describes Goya’s mood and temperament at the time. He had sufficient reason to be angry, bitter, and disheartened by his fellow man, causing him to be cynical in his old age. An example which supports his debated change in demeanor is the x-ray investigations of La Leocadia, the painting of Goya’s secret love interest. The x-ray images show that the figure originally leaned upon a fireplace mantle and was not dressed in mourning clothing as she is now (Appendix 4). The usual speculation is that Goya himself added the funeral aspects later, when mood, or old age, had moved him to give a different message to the image (Art of Goya 2006). There are many unknowns concerning Goya in his elderly years, providing art historians something to talk about for the years to come.

There is no doubt that the turbulent politics in Spain during the early 1800s contributed to the dark nature of the Black Paintings. War, violence, and political brutality against citizens of Spain left Goya with a distinct image of humanity. While most outlets for political frustration were regulated, the walls of the Quinta del Sordo served as Goya’s refuge in his critical, reflective years as a painter. What he developed was a medium for communicating both personal and societal anguish. Dark paints, night settings, and physically, mentally, and emotionally tortured subjects will forever be associated with the Black Paintings. These themes have provided Goya with a clear distinction from other artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali who admittedly have been inspired by Goya’s unique work. Few would disagree that Goya has been secured a spot in art history.




1. "Black Paintings- Saturn." Art of Goya. 2006. 17 Sept. 2007 <http://eeweems.com/goya/saturn.html>.

2. Bozal, Valeriano. Gallery Guide: Goya- Black Paintings. 2005. 2nd ed. Madrid: Fundacion Amigos Del Museo Del Prado.

3. "Cronus." MSN Encarta. 2007. Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 2007. 14 Sep 2007 <http://encarta.msn.com>.

4. Glendinning, Nigel. "The Interpretation of Goya's Black Paintings." 13 Nov. 1975. University of London.

5. "Isidore the Farmer." The Catholic Community Forum. 2007. Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd. 13 Oct. 2007 <http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/sainti03.htm>.

6. Jamieson, Alex. "An Essay on the Life and Work of Francisco Goya." Work Based Learning in Primary Care 3 (2005): 236-252. Proquest. Washington State University, Pullman. 31 Sept. 2007.

7. Junquera, Juan Jose. The Black Paintings of Goya. 2003. London: Scala Publishing Ltd.

8. "Peninsular War." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 27 Aug 2007 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9059071>.

Appendix 1
A: Goya


B: Rubens


Appendix 2
The Witches Sabbath



Appendix 3
A: The Saint Isidore Pilgrimage



B: The Meadow of the Hermitage of Saint Isidore



Appendix 4
La Leocadia