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Francisco de Goya’s Black Paintings

Introduction

With over 600 completed artworks including paintings, etchings, and cartoons, Francisco de Goya is considered one of the greatest artists in Spanish history and, arguably, in global art history. Born in 1746, Goya began his career as a student in Zaragoza, Spain, eventually leaving his hometown at the age of 18 to seek greater opportunities as an artist (Tomlinson, 2020). He traveled through Spain and Italy until he began a career in the court of King Charles III of Spain (Tomlinson, 2020). He became a court painter and was elected as a member of the Royal Academy of San Fernando in 1780 (Harris-Frankfort, n.d.). As a court painter, Goya completed portraits of almost every member of the royal family, including some of the most important figures like King Charles IV and Ferdinand VII. Outside of court portraits, he continued to cultivate a collection of paintings based on important historical events of the time. In his later career he also delved into costumbrismo, a genre of painting that explored themes of everyday Spanish life and customs during the turn of the 19th century (Costumbrismo, n.d.). His paintings outside of portraiture acquired a darker and more macabre tone in general. It was in this later stage of his life that Goya completed what are now known as the Black Paintings: a collection of 14 murals painted on the walls of his personal country house with rather disturbing themes and visuals. Since 1881, the Black Paintings sit in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain, where they are one of the most popular exhibits (Bozal, n.d.). The dark tones of the paintings and the mysterious circumstances under which they were created are the main reason for the popularity of this collection.


The Black Paintings were likely never meant to be seen by the public. They decorated two rooms in La Quinta del Sordo, also known as The Deaf Man’s Villa, Goya’s private estate near Madrid (Bozal, 2015). These murals were painted directly onto the walls with oil paint and framed, an unusual practice that would make them essentially unremovable from Goya's home (Bozal, 2015). The assortment of murals shared a common aesthetic with comparably macabre themes. The haunting images have caused great interest and fascination in past and present viewers, elevating the 14 Black Paintings to the status of the most popular and known works of the artist. Throughout the years after Goya’s death, the context of the paintings and the reason they were created have been issues of great attraction for the general public. The images have intrigued the art world because of the mystery associated with the subject matter and circumstances of their creation, the strange setting of the paintings, and the almost unknown history of the art. While there is only so much information one can draw from the paintings alone, it has become evident that the Black Paintings were one of Goya’s most personal artworks, offering a window into his individual point of view of the world surrounding him.

Figure 1: The Black Paintings, like Pilgrimage to the Fountain of San Isidro, stand out because of their dark aesthetic and mysterious context (Goya, 1819-23).
The Origins of the Black Paintings

Francisco de Goya bought La Quinta del Sordo in 1819. By then, the painter was deaf and had suffered a number of illnesses, like cholera, leaving him very weak in his old age (Forty, 2014). He moved into the country house at 72 years of age after retiring from court painting and expensive commissions (Tomlinson, 2020). He lived in La Quinta del Sordo for the next four years, far away from the center of Madrid and with Leocadia Zorrilla, a married woman widely assumed to be Goya’s lover (Tomlinson, 2020). It was in this setting that, perhaps, Goya felt a freedom to create a number of personal paintings which showed his own feelings and interests without bending to the will of any patron. By 1824, Goya had settled his affairs in Spain and moved to Bordeaux, France, presumably to find better weather suited for his illnesses (Tomlinson, 2020). Goya left no titles or written details about the paintings or property upon his departure, and the house passed to his son, Javier, and later to his grandson, Mariano, in 1854 (Tomlinson, 2020). Mariano had the paintings appraised and proceeded to sell the house in a deteriorated state. It was eventually bought by Baron Frédéric-Emil d’Erlanger in 1873, and he organized the removal of the paintings from the walls, transferring them onto canvas by hacking the plaster off of the adobe house (Tomlinson, 2020). Baron d’Erlanger first exhibited the paintings in 1878 in the International Exposition in Paris, France. Paris was where the public intrigue around the paintings began, and, years later, they still prove to draw in masses of people looking to view the infamous Black Paintings.


The 14 paintings vary in subject matter but share a color motif along with an overall dark emotional undertone (Voorhies, 2003). The color palette for all the paintings is dark earth tones and only small glimpses of color can be found, giving way for the name associated with the collection. The mysterious nature of the collection makes it difficult to associate the paintings with one another, as they cover many different subjects. The overall look and feel of the paintings is certainly the biggest similarity they have, and the themes of violence, fear, and cruelty can be seen in almost all of the images. The shared style of the paintings can be described as rather distorted and hectic (Bozal, 2015). The faces of the human characters appear rather gnarly, almost blurry. The expressions that are readable are strange grimaces and scowling faces, adding to the macabre nature of the paintings. Another observable similarity between most of the paintings is the physical closeness of some of the characters, who pile together, huddled up in clusters of people. These stylistic choices point towards a particularly distressed mental state and have inspired art historians to try to interpret and decipher the reason Goya created these images and the meaning of the paintings themselves.

Figure 2: Exaggerated grimaces, such as these in Women Laughing, can be seen in most of the 14 Black Paintings (Goya, 1819-23).
The Content of the Black Paintings

The 14 Black Paintings in total are divided between six large murals and eight smaller works that were grouped in four pairs and placed parallel to each other in Goya's home. All the paintings were given titles many years after Goya’s death, mainly descriptive phrases based on the images. The largest six murals are mostly referred to as Fight with Cudgels, Atropos, Fantastic Vision, Witches’ Sabbath, A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, and Pilgrimage to the Fountain of San Isidro. The last three murals listed are the biggest and most crowded of the paintings and are great examples of the huddled style Goya showed in the Black Paintings. Of the smallest paintings, Saturn Devouring his Son, is perhaps the most famous image of the whole collection. This painting about the Roman god who ate his children is one of the most disturbing and violent scenes of the Black Paintings and can cause great discomfort when viewed. While Saturn is a character easily found in other paintings of the time, he is given a more melancholic look by other artists (Bozal, 2015). Goya highlights the most brutal part of the myth, centering the deformed face of Saturn and using a bright white paint for the eyes, so they become prominent against the darker skin of the figure and background of the painting. The haunting image of Saturn’s deranged gaze is in direct contrast with other painters’ interpretations of the same subject matter (Bozal, 2015). Saturn is often shown with an idealized body to point out his godly condition and with his scythe (Bozal, 2015). Goya completely throws away this iconographical tradition and centers on the violence of the mythology, which causes this supposed god to look more human-like because of the despair shown by his expression.


Witches’ Sabbath is another painting that stands out because of its sinister topic and strange composition. This mural depicts a group of witches gathering around an anthropomorphized goat wearing a black cloak. A witches’ sabbath was the popular name given to the supposed monthly meeting where witches would reconvene with demons and worship the devil. This painting has been interpreted as the moment of an initiation rite of a new witch (Bozal, 2015). Goya had depicted a number of scenes relating to witches over the years, and it had been a point of interest for the artist as well as a popular topic during his life because of the longstanding history of witch trials during the Spanish Inquisition. While the symbolism and iconography used by Goya in paintings like Witches’ Sabbath and Saturn Devouring his Son can be analyzed and investigated, the true, genuine reason for why Goya decided to depict these scenes has been almost impossible to know. Art historians have placed a great deal of importance on the formal analysis of the paintings, as it can show the mental and emotional state of an artist. The dark colors and deformed faces awaken certain horrific feelings and emotions in the observer, which can point towards the way the painter must have been feeling at the moment he put paint to plaster.

Figure 3: Witches' Sabbath is considered one of the most grim scenes in the Black Paintings collection (Goya, 1819-23).
The Legacy of the Black Paintings

Although the reason for the Black Paintings has never been confirmed, it is important to mention that certain clues can be seen in Goya’s other work leading up to when he moved into the Quinta del Sordo. During his first bout of sickness in the late 18th century, Goya’s artistic style started changing, and with the War of Independence in 1808, and the numerous political issues that followed this conflict, the painter started showing a disillusion with society and the political climate in Spain through his art (Bozal, 2015). A number of paintings before the Black Paintings have similarly horrific themes, such as Bandit Murdering a Woman and many works depicting war scenes. In his old age, Goya had seen a lot of terrible wars and social unrest happen in Spain, which caused him to enter a negative headspace. This culminated in the creation of the Black Paintings, where he depicts, blatantly and without censorship, the violence he saw in Spanish society. Goya left for France under an excuse related to his illness, but he was also trying to create distance between him and the repressive absolutist monarchy of Spain. He even joined other Spanish exiles in Bordeaux, France (Forty, 2014).


Over the years, some art historians have theorized that the Black Paintings are fakes created by Goya’s family to enrich themselves with the artist’s legacy (Forty, 2014). Although this theory has some valid points, such as the paintings never being mentioned during Goya’s life, it is accepted by the wider historical community that these artworks are indeed Goya’s. In his debilitated and sickly physical state, the old artist had managed to fill his private home with a collection that relates to his personal thoughts and beliefs more than any court portrait he had done throughout his career. The reason behind his decision to create these paintings is at the center of the mystery behind the Black Paintings and one of the reasons for their popularity. Another reason that draws crowds to visit the Museo del Prado to admire the paintings is the dark themes and deformed faces that depart and contrast against the other works of art in the beautiful museum. The frightening thoughts of an elderly Goya were immortalised by him in a seemingly organised and well-thought-out manner and later brought out of the shadows of his home so the public could gaze upon the most private artwork of the painter. These cryptic and dark works of art are still the object of admiration for the masses and will likely remain a topic of debate and investigation for art historians and academics for many years to come.

Bibliographical references

Bozal, V. (2015). Pinturas negras de Goya. Antonio Machado Libros.


Bozal, V. (n.d.). Pinturas Negras [Goya]. Museo del Prado. Retrieved from:

https://www.museodelprado.es/aprende/enciclopedia/voz/pinturas-negras-goya/3ac8fe0b-3dd9-4dcd-b1e1-a21877cc8163


Costumbrismo (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from:

https://www.britannica.com/art/costumbrismo


Forty, S. (2014). Francisco de Goya. Taj Books International.


Harris-Frankfort, H (n.d.). Francisco Goya. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Francisco-Goya


Tomlinson, J. (2020). Goya: A portrait of the artist. Princeton University Press.


Voorhies, J. (2003) Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) and the Spanish Enlightenment. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Retrieved from: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/goya/hd_goya.htm


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Maya Sánchez Urrutia

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