Goya's Black Paintings


Saturn Devouring His Son (1819), one of 14 "black paintings", a series of grotesque even disturbing images produced by Goya in the later years of his life

The Black Paintings are a group of paintings by Francisco de la Goya done in the later years of his life (1819-1823) that portray intense, haunting themes.
Goya completed many works for prominent clients in his time, including four pictures for the University of Salamanca and a painting for the Duke of Jihar to be placed in a parish church in the province of Teruel.

In 1819 at the age of 72, Goya moved into a two-story house outside of Mdrid called "Quinta del Sordo," or "Deaf man's villa". Although the house had been named after the previous owner who was deaf, Goya was himself deaf at the time as a result of an illness he suffered at the age of 46.
After the Napoleonic Wars and the turmoil of the Spanish government, Goya developed an embittered attitude towards humanity. He had an acute awareness of panic, terror, fear, and hysteria. Also surviving two near-fatal illnesses, Goya grew increasingly anxious and impatient in fear of relapse. These factors combined are thought to have led to his production of 14 works known as the Black Paintings.

Using oil paints and working directly onto the walls of his dining and sitting rooms, Goya created intense, haunting works with dark themes. The painting were not commissioned, and they were not meant to leave his home. He did not title the paintings, but art historians have since provided titles.

Perhaps the best known of the Black Paintings is Saturn Devouring His Son. The frightening image portrays the Roman god Saturn eating one of his children. (The Greek counterpart to Saturn is Cronuc, father of time.) Fearing a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him, Saturn ate each of his children upon their birth. Goya depicts this act of Cannibalism with startling savagery. The background is black, while the limbs and head of Saturn seem to pop out of the shadows. Saturn's eyes are huge and bulging as if he is mad. His fingers dig into the back of his son, whose head and right arm are already consumed. Saturn is about to take another bite of his child's left arm. The only use of color besides flesh-tones is the splash of red blood covering the mutilated outline of the upper part of the half-eaten body. Apart from telling the story of Saturn and his children, this painting depicts how Cronus, or time, devours all things.
Another of Goya's dark paletted works from the Black Paintings collection is titled The Great He-Goat or Witches' Sabbath (El aquelarre). Earlier, Goya created a version of this work in a more cheerful and optimistic way, however, this image is ominous and gloomy. This earth-toned illustration shows Goya demonstration of the ancient belief that the Sabbath was a meeting of witches supervised by the devil, who took the form of a goat. The goat is painted completely black and appears as a silhouette in front of a crowd of witches and warlocks. These "sub-humans" have sunken eyes and near horrifying features. The figures huddle together, leaning towards the devil. Only one girl seems resistant to the crowd, and she sits at the far right, dressed in black holding a muff. Though she does not appear involved in the ritual, she does seem to be captivated by the group's relationship to the devil.

Not all of the Black Paintings share the limited colors of the previous two examples. In Fight With Clubs, shows Goya's dramatic use of blues and reds as two men cudgel each other. While in the original version they were fighting on a meadow, the painting was damaged during the transfer, and the version at Prado has been painted over, stressing the eeriness of the fighters, unable to escape each other's blows due to their knee-deep entrapment in quagmire. It has been taken as a premonition of the fight of the two Spains, that would dominate the following centuries. Fantastic Vision also uses bright red in the garb of one of the two giant figures hovering over a group of horsemen, and also in the feather of the hat of a rifleman taking aim at these figures.
In 1823, an absolutist monarchy was re-established in Spain, and Goya went into hiding. A year later, he fled to Bordeaux, France and stayed there in a self-imposed exile for the remainder of his life.
Recent research suggests that Goya suffered from a disease that affected his vision, hearing, and balance. Studies propose that his illness was a syndrome known as Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada, or uveomeningoencephalytic syndrome — an autoimmune disorder which involves the visual and cochlear pigment derived from the neural crest. As stated by the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa, Florida, USA, "It is interesting to speculate how the period of Goya's artistic output known as the Black Paintings might have been created during the time he had the disease." Earlier theories proposed poisoning by lead from his paintings.
Although Goya did not intend for anyone other than himself to see the Black Paintings, they have since been taken off the walls and transferred onto canvas because of their deteriorating condition 70 years after they were painted. The owner subsequently donated these canvases to the Spanish state, and they are now on display at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain.

Read more on Goya in the Book: The Black Paintings of Goya by Juan Jose Junquera, available from $13.10 at amazon

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