Home > A closer look > The Stories Behind Goya’s Paintings
The Stories Behind Goya's Paintings
A closer look 13 Jun 2022

The Stories Behind Goya's Paintings

Francisco de Goya’s work is known for its ability to combine emotions and historicity. Born in Spain in the 18th century, Goya is considered a pioneer of pictural realism. He was often hired by the royals of his time, and his portraits reflect the often difficult changes lived by the Spanish population. However, towards the end of his career, Goya produced some remarkably terrifying works. With Artsper, discover the inspiration sources of Goya’s intriguing paintings!

Goya’s Spain, his first inspiration

goya carlos iv de espana and family
Francisco de Goya, Carlos IV of Spain and His Family, 1800

Goya is a painter of human nature: he has never produced a landscape with no human figure. His career extended during an eventful time for Spain. Indeed, the peninsula considerably changed with the numerous wars and revolts. Specifically, the consequences of the French Revolution were starting to be noticeable, political uprisings were more frequent, and many unstable governments succeeded each other. Moreover, Spain witnesses the birth of new schools of thought, such as the Enlightenment. In parallel, Catholicism remains an important topic in the country, while supernatural beliefs resurface.

It is in this heterogeneous context that Goya paints an impressive number of portraits and historical scenes. Those are crucial now to analyze the Spanish socio-political variations. Goya’s models are true individuals, full of vitality and ideals.

The painter of revolutionary Spain

goya paintings tres de mayo
Francisco de Goya, El Tres de Mayo, 1814

Goya’s paintings are certainly well-known for their revolutionary aspect. The scene of the Third of May 1808 is a perfect example of a historical painting by Goya. This scene pays tribute to the Spanish resistance during the invasion of Napoleon between 1808 and 1809. The figure in white, who is instantly recognizable, symbolizes the martyr. Goya thus shows his sympathies and his support for political resistance.

The art of Goya is also associated with superstition and sorcery. His most famous work of this type is probably the Witches’ Sabbath. At the center of the scene dominates a goat, supposed to represent the devil. Surrounding him are women of all ages, presenting him with children. When we have a closer look at the left side of the background, we understand that the scene does not bode well.

goya paintings witches sabbath
Francisco de Goya, Witches Sabbath, 1797-1798

In Spain, women were executed for sorcery until the 18th century. With the rise of Catholicism, the Inquisition entrusted itself with the task of waging war on any non-traditional belief. Goya, as a man of the Enlightenment and a realist painter often criticizes the authority of the Inquisition in his works. The sorcery works of Goya could, on the one hand, condemn the Inquisition who, by continuing to chase alleged witches, contributed to the persistence of these beliefs. On the other hand, Goya surely wished to show himself the horrors of these practices which were no longer in tune with the intellectual revolution of his time.

The painter of declining Spain

goya two old ones eating soup
Francisco de Goya, Two Old Ones Eating Soup, 1823

The majority of Goya’s career was relatively conventional, but approaching the end of his life, his œuvre took a very dark turn. Around 70 years old in 1819, Goya retires to his villa and paints terrifying works on the walls. One can read the despair of a weakened man (he turned deaf shortly before turning 50), who is at the end of his life. These works, called “pinturas negras” (Black Paintings) also reflect a torment regarding the situation in Spain. Indeed, Goya witnesses the succession of the Napoleonic wars and the changes in Spanish governments. He allowed his pessimism to invade the walls of his villa and wrote this iconic sentence: “El sueño de la razón produce monstrous” (the sleep of reason produces monsters).

goya paintings saturn devouring his son
Francisco de Goya, Saturn Devouring his Son, 1819-23

His masterpiece Saturn Devouring his Son is an example of these 14 “Black Paintings” produced between 1819 and 1823. This bloody portrait has also remained as one of the most frightening works in the history of art. Taken straight from a nightmare is a depiction of cannibal madness reflecting, without a doubt, the artist’s own malaise. Another work from this series of Goya’s paintings, Two Old Ones Eating Soup, depicts two monstrous-looking men. It is said that this series contributed to the commencement of Romanticism. Indeed, although these paintings are categorized as historical as many are taken from ancient myths, their context makes them Romantic works; they represent the personal feeling of a tortured artist.

What legacy do Goya’s paintings leave behind?

Goya declared “My work is very simple. My art reveals idealism and truth.” Considered to be one of the last Great Masters of painting, Goya is a historical painter and a Romantic ahead of time. During his career, he worked for three Kings, and never failed to put his political preferences on canvas. He was truly the painter of Span at war, of the people defending their independence, and of a society undergoing ideological change.

On the other hand, Goya is truly a master when it comes to representing horror and madness. By letting his own malaise interfere with his end-of-life works, he introduced the figure of the tormented Romantic painter. He was not afraid to make his paintings realistic and troubling scenes. All in all, his works are human and societal analyses, often with a subtle satirical or distressing touch.