Why Goya Made His Haunting “Black Paintings” at the End of His Life

Though most of us see Fran­cis­co Goy­a’s Sat­urno devo­ran­do a su hijo, or Sat­urn Devour­ing His Son, at least every few months, we were nev­er meant to see it all. The same is true of all four­teen of the so-called “Black Paint­ings,” which Goya exe­cut­ed late in his life on the walls of his vil­la out­side Madrid. They now hang at the Pra­do where, as one tour guide put it to the Guardian’s Stephen Phe­lan, “some peo­ple can hard­ly even look at them.” When vis­i­tors enter the room that con­tains these often grim and bizarre visions, “they are always sur­prised. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a vis­i­tor whose expres­sion hasn’t changed.”

What could have moved Goya to cre­ate such paint­ings? In the new Great Art Explained video essay above, gal­lerist and Youtu­ber James Payne lays out the rel­e­vant fac­tors in Goy­a’s life and the tur­bu­lent soci­ety in which he lived. His Enlight­en­ment views and pen­chant for brazen satire drew sus­pi­cion, as did his will­ing­ness to paint for French and pro-French clients dur­ing that coun­try’s occu­pa­tion of Spain.

At the age of 72 he end­ed up putting him­self into a kind of coun­try­side exile, tak­ing up res­i­dence in an estate called the Quin­ta del Sor­do (the “Vil­la of the Deaf,” and suit­ably enough, since Goya him­self hap­pened to have lost his hear­ing by that point).

It was in the Quin­ta del Sor­do, and indeed on it, that Goya (or, accord­ing to cer­tain the­o­ries, Goy­a’s son) set his artis­tic world­view free to real­ize its most grotesque and jaun­diced forms. Even apart from Sat­urn’s act of can­ni­bal­is­tic fil­i­cide, Phe­lan writes, “a humanoid bil­ly goat in a monk­ish cas­sock bleats a satan­ic ser­mon to a gasp­ing con­gre­ga­tion of witch­es. A des­per­ate­ly expres­sive lit­tle dog appears to plead for res­cue, sub­merged up to its neck in a mud-col­ored mire beneath a gloomy, void-like fir­ma­ment of neg­a­tive space.” Known as El Per­ro, or The Dog, that last art­work is one of the most beloved in Spain — and, in its ascetic way, the most haunt­ing Black Paint­ing of all.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

Euro­pean Paint­ings: From Leonar­do to Rem­brandt to Goya — A Free Online Course from the Uni­ver­si­dad Car­los III de Madrid (UC3M)

Art Lovers Rejoice! New Goya and Rem­brandt Data­bas­es Now Online

The Pra­do Muse­um Dig­i­tal­ly Alters Four Mas­ter­pieces to Strik­ing­ly Illus­trate the Impact of Cli­mate Change

Great Art Explained: Watch 15-Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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