The Black Paintings: the horror of Francisco Goya’s last works

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Goya has a unique position in the history of western art, representing the first truly modern artist. His art embodies the emphasis of romanticism on subjectivity, imagination and emotion are characteristics that are reflected above all in his works and later in his private paintings.

Goya was an astute observer of the world around him, his art represents the exact output of the events of his time: from the liberations of the Enlightenment to the suppressions of the Inquisition, to the horrors of war and then end at Napoleonic invasion. Both for his inventiveness and his political commitment, Goya’s art had a huge impact on the artists who succeeded him.

Goya’s late paintings are among the darkest and most mysterious ones of his life. The series of 14 paintings was born on his farm on the outskirts of Madrid, nicknamed by himself “Quinta del sordo” (Deaf Man’s Villa), a name not given by chance, that refers to his deafness. It was precisely here that he began to decorate the walls of the living room and the dining room with dark colors and with disturbing and distressing subjects that seem to have emerged from his worst nightmares. These works, made in oil directly on the plaster, have been renamed Pinturas Negras or Black Paintings.

The works are full of images of violence, despair, evil and desire. These are the pessimistic expressions of an elderly artist, deaf, disillusioned with society and struggling with himself. His work forms a bridge between those ancient masters and the great moderns artists, prophesying expressionism and surrealism.

In the Black Paintings Goya used grotesques to illustrate his topics. Witches, demons and goblins are metaphors for violence, ignorance, blind superstition. “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos” (the sleep of reason produces monsters), he wrote under one of the most emblematic images.

Among the 14 works of this phase of the Spanish artist, Saturn Devouring His Son certainly remains among the most impressive ones, but Two Old Men Eating Soup isn’t less disturbing.

Francisco Goya, Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819-1823

The scene that opens is paradoxical: two old men at the table. One of the men is practically a skeleton, already dead and decaying, but who continues to eat with no limits. Goya, as a careful observer, was very skilled at reproducing it in his works. The characters deformed by age and disease are disturbing entities reduced to the minimum, almost to skeletons, but in addition to the initial repellency they transmit compassion, melancholy for what has been and will never return: youth, strength, health or better yet life itself. When he painted them, Goya was 74 years old, was sick and deaf and was sadly aware that his Spain was very weak.

Perhaps, however, Goya’s true testament, the work that most represents him in these last difficult years, remains El Perro.

Francisco Goya, El Perro, 1819-1823

A small little dog, half hidden, with a frightened look, who helplessly watches the devilishness put in place on the walls of the Quinta. A metaphor in which the dog would be the painter himself, crushed by everything that surrounds him. It is a subversive portrait: Goya witnessed the corruption and barbarism of the Napoleonic invasion. Famine, poverty, cruelty mark those years.

Many call him crazy, melancholic, pessimistic but in reality he was an optimist with a great sense of humor, rational and with clear ideas. He was aware of what he wanted to dissect, an artist who worked in his space and time, not communicating anything to anyone, expressing himself only with himself. In a statement he stated:

“I am always the same when it comes to my health, sometimes I feel angry, in a state of mind that I can’t stand, sometimes I feel more peaceful.”

Analyzing Two Old Men, it seems that Goya wants to compare two different entities. The characters are two elderly people dressed as monks: the one in the foreground is calm and dignified, his expression is a little sad but serene, the other contrasts sharply with his neighbour: his face is monstrous. Human figures are painted in an expressionistic style that depicts humans as pseudo-monsters, like blurry and misshapen faces. Goya had no intention of showing them publicly and gave no explanation about why. They were his creations, he simply indulged his creative flair.

Francisco Goya, Fight With Cudgels, 1820

Another recurring theme is the effect and consequences of the war. In Fight with Cudgels the meaning seems clear. It shows two peasants fighting each other with their legs stuck in a quagmire, unable to escape from each other except by beating the opponent to death. Most students agree that this represents Spain’s violent civil war. The inhabitants felt prisoners in their own country, the only way forward for both sides was victory, the only salvation therefore one of them had to succumb. 

As the great Charles Baudelaire said: Goya is a nightmare full of unknown things.

Cover Image: Francisco Goya, Witches’ Sabbath, 1821-1823

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