black paintings de goya
Despite a number of attempts, no overarching interpretation of the series in its original context has been widely accepted. Glendinning suggests that Goya decorated his villa in accordance with the décor that is found in the palaces of the nobility and homes of the upper middle classes. According to these rules, and taking into consideration that the ground floor was used as a dining room, the theme of the paintings should accord with their surroundings. This means that the paintings should be country scenes (the villa was situated on the banks of the River Manzanares opposite the San Isidro plain) and still life paintings and representations of banquets that allude to the room’s function. Although Goya did not explicitly deal with these themes, Saturn Devouring His Son and Two Old Men Eating Soup represent the act of eating, even if in an ironic way using black humour. In addition Judith killed Holofernes after inviting him to a banquet. Other paintings invert the traditional bucolic scene and are related to the nearby hermitage dedicated to the patron saint of Madrid: A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, Procession of the Holy Office and even Leocadia, whose sepulchre could relate to the cemetery near to the hermitage.
(Peregrinación a la fuente de San Isidro/Procesión del Santo Oficio), Procession of the Holy Office, 1819–1823
The 14 ‘Black Paintings’ paintings (now in the Museo del Prado), so called because of the dark tones and predominance of black, originally decorated the Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man). They were painted in oils on the walls of two rooms, on the ground floor and first floor, and transferred to canvas in 1873. Goya acquired the house in September 1819, but probably did not begin the paintings before the following year, after his recovery from serious illness. When Goya recovered, his deafness remained, and this changed his character in a way that is reflected in his work. The constant fear of a relapse made him impatient, and this is also evident in his technique. As his monstrous imagining found expression, he darkened the walls in two rooms with terrible scenes of witches and visions of evil spirits. A fantastic horde of cynically grimacing hags and ghosts fill these rooms.
The paintings must have been finished by 17 September 1823, when he donated the property to his 17-year-old grandson, shortly before he went into hiding. Though it is possible to reconstruct the arrangement of the paintings in the two rooms, many of their subjects defy description and the meaning of these sombre, horrific inventions is as difficult to decipher as their appearance is sinister and forbidding. ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’, Goya’s title to what was possibly his first design for the frontispiece of Los Caprichos, would have been even more fitting as a title to this array of nightmare visions, created by the artist in his mid-seventies.
Unlike the ‘WitchesвЂ™ Sabbath’ and ‘Saturn Devouring his Son’, ‘Fight with the Cudgels’ embraces some colour. Dramatic blues and reds are used to show two men beating one another. The original painting features a meadow as the paintingвЂ™s setting. Damaged during the transfer from GoyaвЂ™s home, the background in the version at the Prado was painted over. ‘Fight with the Cudgels’ can be seen as a premonition of the political conflict between left and right political factions known as Las dos EspaГ±as, or the Two Spains. This division eventually led to the Spanish Civil War. Another painting depicting two large figures is the ‘Fantastic Vision’. In this piece, a frightened man and woman hover over horsemen taking aim at them with a large tabled mountain in the background. Again, the painting evokes conflict as a central theme. Confrontation is also a theme in ‘Men Reading’, which shows what looks like a meeting of conspirators. While ‘Men Reading’ depicts a serious scene, ‘Women Laughing’ is lighter in theme but still dark in representation of colour and tone. Both were originally painted in Goya’s sitting room.
These intense creations reflect his fear of insanity. They also convey his pessimistic view of humanity. With the Napoleonic Wars and internal turmoil affecting social and political life in Spain, Goya developed a bleak attitude towards humanity.
> Editors’ Tip: Goya: Order & Disorder
Left: Francisco Goya – Judith and Holofernes, between 1819 and 1823. Oil on canvas, 146 cm (57.4 in) x 84 cm (33 in). Museo del Prado Collection / Right: Francisco Goya – Man Mocked by Two Women (Mujeres riendo, Dos mujeres y un hombre, Dos mujeres, Dos mujeres riéndose de un hombre o Dos mujeres riéndose a mandíbula batiente), between 1819 and 1823. Oil on canvas, 125 cm (49.2 in) x 66 cm (25.9 in). Museo del Prado Collection
If it seems a very long way from such sumptuous, social painting to the unforgiving bleakness of the picture known as The Dog (1819–1823), or the unrelenting horror of his picture of Saturn, it might be worth thinking again about what might motivate such a man as Goya to imagine and enact such things as The Black Paintings. Perhaps, because we fear the loss of the things we love, and because that loss is absolutely assured in death, the Black Paintings exist within and behind those images and objects we cherish as materially “good.” If we think again, perhaps Goya was always destined to bring such images into the world. And, because we may as well do so without flinching, that terrible image of Saturn is as good a place to start thinking again.
In February 1819, Francisco de Goya, whose own ears were already rushing with the deafness brought on by lead poisoning, signed the deed of purchase for an isolated estate known as The Deaf Man’s House. It was named for the previous tenant, but the nominative determinism is a telling detail of the great painter’s later years. Onto the walls of his final home, Goya would paint a series of tenebrous and horrifying works which he never intended anyone to see. They came to be known as The Black Paintings.
Javier was suspect because he had both access and motive. Yet his artistic credentials are at best sketchy. No known work exists, only a paper trail of documents — and a very short trail at that. In 1803, Goya donated the copperplates of his ”Los Caprichos” etchings to the king in return for an annual allowance to permit Javier to travel abroad to further his artistic education. Two years later, Javier listed ”painter” as his profession on his marriage certificate. There is no further mention of Javier’s artistic career until Yriarte, in his book published 13 years after Javier’s death, noted that a painting had been removed from the walls of the Quinta; the painting, he said, was thought to be by Javier, not by Goya. That work has never been identified. In recent years, as more information has surfaced about Goya’s associates, another possibility has occurred to art historians. Perhaps Javier, who was an avid businessman — ”If it was possible to sell his mother, he would have,” Junquera remarks — benefited from the trafficking of spurious Goyas without painting them.
Venerated as the first modern artist, Francisco Goya produced nothing more abrasively modern than the series of 14 images known as the Black Paintings, which a half-century after his death were cut from the walls of his country house on the outskirts of Madrid. Even today, when you come upon them in the sanitized confines of the Prado Museum, these nightmarish visions can unmoor you. An ancient crone grins ghoulishly over a bowl of food; a demonic figure whispers in the ear of a stooped old man; a midnight coven surrounds a goat-headed sorcerer; a dog raises its head forlornly; and, most famous of all, a raggedy-bearded man with bulging eyes devours a human form that is already reduced to red meat. Of this last iconic image — called ”Saturn,” after the Titan who ate his children — the art historian Fred Licht has written that it is as ”essential to our understanding of the human condition in modern times” as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is to our grasp of the 16th century.
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