Francisco Goya was a Spanish painter whose paintings took a distinctive turn throughout his life. From the ordinary to the surreal, Goya’s work became increasingly violent, dark, and political, even though he began simply enough as a portrait painter to the king.
Born in 1746 and apprenticed as a painter at the age of 14, Goya eventually worked as both a fresco painter and tapestry designer, many of which were used for the royal palace in Spain.
Soon he began to paint portraits of Spanish royalty as well, following in the footsteps of Diego Velazquez, an earlier court painter of Spain.
Francisco Goya was known for his rather plain portrayals of the king and royal family—some call them unflattering and harsh.
Certainly when it comes to faces Goya didn’t intend to flatter, and it makes for interesting contrast compared to the fabrics, patterns, and gilt detailing which all seem quite beautifully done.
Yet despite his “unflattering” portraits, Goya remained at the Spanish court for several decades, even throughout a severe illness which left him deaf, disillusioned, and depressed. It was at this point (just a few years before the turn of the century) that Goya’s style began to change.
Outside the court his work became darker and sketchier, with less detail and more emphasis on political meaning.
Artistically, I suppose it was good timing. Spain soon became embroiled in war and was invaded by France, which led to some of Goya’s most political and powerful works, like the painting below entitled The Third of May 1808.
In it, Goya shows the brutal slaughtering of several Spanish civilians by the soldiers of the French army.
It’s a far cry from Goya’s posed portraits of earlier years, but what it might lack in polish, it more than makes up for with its sudden intensity and crystal clear violence.
Goya became more withdrawn as war continued to rage, and although Spain eventually overthrew its French oppressors, civil war remained. Some art historians believe this next painting is a metaphor for that self-defeating conflict.
Duel with Cudgels shows two men beating each other with clubs while stuck to their knees in sand, unable to dodge or flee. There’s even more expression and movement than seen in The Third of May, as the very landscape itself seems to shift and turn with each thudding blow.
By this time in 1816 Goya was no longer a painter to the king—after losing favor in the court, he chose to live in seclusion and began painting images that came from the increasingly dark depths of his mind.
With visions of monsters, witches, and giants running through his head, Goya’s final, terrifying body of work soon became known as The Black Paintings—14 paintings he made directly on the inside walls of his own home.
Full of huge creatures like The Colossus, above, or the grotesque Saturn Devouring one of his Children, below, they reveal yet another side to Francisco Goya—one that shows just how far he came from the traditional paintings of his time.
When looking at all his works, including the plain-faced royalty, the politically driven paintings, and these nightmare monsters, it’s hard to say for sure who Goya really was as a painter.
But I think the underlying theme of all his artwork was simply dissatisfaction. And as he became more and more unhappy with the state of things, Goya brought down his guard and let his paintings tell the world.
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