The Most Disturbing Painting: A Close Look at Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”

Progress is not a guar­an­tee. It can be stunt­ed, out­lawed, or usurped. And then you have to fight for it all over again. The Span­ish painter Fran­cis­co Goya (1746–1828) found this out over the course of his life as he saw the promise of the Enlight­en­ment fall to Napoleon’s forces and then to an auto­crat­ic monarch (Fer­di­nand VII). In his per­son­al life, Goya had gone from a hap­py exis­tence as a court painter to strug­gling with loss of hear­ing and pos­si­ble men­tal ill­ness.

As Evan Puschak aka Nerd­writer illus­trates in his creepy and well edit­ed video essay, it was around this time that the reclu­sive painter start­ed work on his “Black Paint­ings.” These 14 works were made in oil direct­ly onto the plas­ter walls of the con­vert­ed farm­house that had become his stu­dio. The sub­ject mat­ter was very dark: old age, mad­ness, witch­es. And the one paint­ing that Puschak sin­gles out as The Most Dis­turb­ing Paint­ing of All Time, “Sat­urn Eat­ing His Son,” is the dark­est of the lot.

As Puschak explains, artists had often turned to the sto­ry of Sat­urn (in Roman Mythol­o­gy) or Cronos (in Greek) for sub­ject mat­ter. Cronos ate his new­born sons after a prophe­cy warned that a future child would over­throw him. Despite the can­ni­bal­ism, painters ren­dered Cronos with a clas­si­cal, hero­ic physique. Goya, despite hav­ing paint­ed in this style ear­ly in his career, ren­ders Sat­urn as a beard­ed beast of a man, caught in the mid­dle of devour­ing not a baby, but a grown man. It’s the eyes that frighten–Goya paints them wide and wild, almost too big, full of shame, hor­ror, blood­lust and pret­ty much what­ev­er the view­er wants to read into it.

But here’s the kick­er, as Puschak says, this paint­ing along with the 13 oth­ers at his stu­dio, weren’t meant to be seen by any­one. Goya nev­er spoke about them, and peo­ple cer­tain­ly weren’t stop­ping by to see them. The Sat­urn paint­ing was on dis­play in his din­ing room. Bon appétit!

The Black Paint­ings now hang (after much labo­ri­ous trans­fer from their orig­i­nal walls) at the Pra­do Muse­um in Madrid where they chill and fas­ci­nate view­ers to this day. But we’ll nev­er know exact­ly why he paint­ed them and what was run­ning through his mind when he paint­ed Sat­urn. The Nerd­writer gives this work the expli­ca­tion it deserves.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Art Lovers Rejoice! New Goya and Rem­brandt Data­bas­es Now Online

The Pra­do Muse­um Cre­ates the First Art Exhi­bi­tion for the Visu­al­ly Impaired, Using 3D Print­ing

100 Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um Cura­tors Talk About 100 Works of Art That Changed How They See the World

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (6)
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  • David says:

    There are ques­tions as to whether Goya even paint­ed these. The rea­son being, there are paint­ings on the sec­ond floor of his house. There was no sec­ond floor on his house dur­ing his life­time.

    Also, there where nev­er titles to the paint­ings. Sat­urn devour­ing his son was titled by oth­ers.

  • Lori Crockett says:

    Wow! I loved the video com­men­tary. So thought-pro­vok­ing and spot on. And dark­ly humor­ous. I laughed out loud!

  • Cambrinus says:

    An excel­lent exam­i­na­tion of a just­ly (in)famous paint­ing. Not com­plete­ly viti­at­ed by the exe­crable pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Span­ish.

  • Katie says:

    Imag­ine being in a 9 AM art his­to­ry class, in the dark, in a cush­ioned seat, slow­ly nod­ding off as the pro­fes­sor drones on…

    …and then THIS thing is pro­ject­ed on the huge screen. Woke me right up.

  • landon smith says:

    Does the orig­i­nal piece exist some­where? I can’t find it any­where online as to where the orig­i­nal resides

  • JULIE says:

    It says in the arti­cle it’s in the Pra­do Muse­um, Madrid

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