Francisco Goya started his career as a royal painter to the kings of Spain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For much of his career, he was wealthy and in demand. But that stability didn’t last forever. At middle-age, sometime around 1792, Goya became seriously ill with an unknown disease that left him deaf. When he recovered, Goya began to withdraw from high society, and started exploring darker themes in his work. He looks to the Spanish aristocracy and portrays them as monuments to desperation, folly, arrogance, and incompetence. In 1799 Goya published a book of etchings called Caprichos. This series has been reproduced a number of times, and here is how Aldous Huxley described the collection in a twentieth century re-print:
“These creatures who haunt Goya’s Later Works are inexpressibly horrible, with the horror of mindlessness and animality and spiritual darkness. And above the lower depths where they obscenely pullulate is a world of bad priests and lustful friars, of fascinating women whose love is a ‘dream of lies and inconstancy,’ of fatuous nobles and, at the top of the social pyramid, a royal family of half-wits, sadists, Messalinas and perjurers. The moral of it all is summed up in the central plate of the Caprichos [originally plate 1], in which we see Goya himself, his head on his arms, sprawled across his desk and fitfully sleeping, while the air above is peopled with bats and owls of necromancy and just behind his chair lies an enormous witch’s cat, malevolent as only Goya’s cats can be, staring at the sleeper with baleful eyes. On the side of the desk are traced the words, ‘The dream [or ‘sleep’] of reason produces monsters.”
Life didn’t get any easier for Goya. The French invaded Spain, starting the Peninsular War. On May 2nd, 1808, the citizens of Madrid rose up against the French occupiers, killing approximately 150 French soldiers. In retaliation, on the 3rd of May, French soldiers lined up and shot hundreds of people, and these executions continued for days in other cities throughout Spain. This brutality united the Spanish people against Napoleon’s invading French army and, although it took them many bloody years, the Spanish were eventually able to push the French out of their country. Much of the cruelty and war was witnessed by Goya first-hand. Being an artist, Goya had to put down what he saw and recorded it in his series of prints called The Disasters of War. This series is very disturbing.
Goya’s work kept getting darker and darker. In 1819, after his wife died, Goya moved to the Spanish countryside and completely isolated himself. He began working on his Black Paintings, which explore themes of insanity, cannibalism, the witch’s sabbath, and other dark themes. These paintings were never meant for public display, and most were painted directly on the walls of his house.
Goya eventually died alone and in exile. Much of his work had to be “donated” to the crown in order to protect him from the Inquisition. Goya started his life as a Romantic, believing in the power of reason. But in the end, his work shows what happens when reason is replaced by human folly and corrupt social customs.