As conflict ravaged Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Goya’s work not only chronicled his times but underwent an extraordinary revolution itself, enshrining him as both the last of the Old Masters and the father of modern art
A master of irony as well as elegance, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) — better known as Goya — is considered to be one of the most important Spanish artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Just as he straddles two centuries, he can also be seen as both the last of the Old Masters and the father of modern art. He cited ‘Nature, Velázquez and Rembrandt’ as his main influences.
Goya studied under José Luzán y Martínez from the age of 14, and later moved to Madrid to be taught by Anton Raphael Mengs. By the time he turned 40 he was court painter to the Spanish royal family, where he became famous as a portraitist of the highest order. ‘I have now established myself in a most enviable manner,’ he remarked. ‘Those who require something of me must seek me out — I remain apart. I work for no one unless he is a high-ranking personality or a friend.’
After 1793 one can discern a certain darkness in Goya’s work. Many put this down to the fact that he suffered from an illness that rendered him virtually deaf, but this more pessimistic outlook — as exemplified by his painting of a dog drowning in quicksand — can also be attributed to the political and social upheaval he witnessed during the Peninsular War, waged by Napoleon against Spain.
These events inspired him to create a series of prints entitled The Disasters of War and perhaps his best-known painting, Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, 3rd May, 1808, in which a man in a bright white shirt faces a firing line of soldiers, his face a picture of horror.
Wary of both religion and superstition, Goya produced a number of satirical prints on these subjects, most notably as part of the series Los Caprichos, which includes the famous work The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. He described the prints as representing ‘the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilised society’ and ‘the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual’.
Although they were not circulated for long — Goya withdrew them from the market for fear of becoming a target of the Inquisition — the Caprichos became his best-known and most influential work. Tiepolo owned a set and Delacroix openly borrowed from the famous compositions. Today the complete set — comprising 80 prints — can fetch more than £1 million at auction.
Goya’s Caprichos mark a turning point in the history of printmaking. He was the first major artist to work in the relatively new technique of aquatint, which involved etching a copper plate with nitric acid and using resin and varnish to produce areas of tonal shading to create a watercolour-like effect. The plate would wear away after a number of pressings, causing details and depth to be lost, meaning that earlier editions are more valuable.
Until 1790 most paintings of nudes were references to mythology or allegory. Goya is considered to be the first major artist to paint a woman entirely nude, in a realist style, representing a major break from tradition. The Nude Maja (1795-1800) was painted for nobleman Manuel de Godoy, and is said to be a composite of Godoy’s mistress Pepita Tudó and the Duchess of Alba, with whom it was rumoured Goya was having an affair.
The model is shown dressed in another version, The Clothed Maja (1800-1807). In 1813 both works were confiscated by the Inquisition. Today, they hang side by side in the Prado.
Goya was not just a satirist or portraitist but someone who thought seriously about the nature of art, writing letters over the course of his career that expounded his philosophy of painting. In one he wrote, ‘Painting (like poetry) chooses from universals what is most apposite. It brings together, in a single imaginary being, circumstances and characteristics which occur in nature in many different persons. From this combination, ingeniously composed, results that happy imitation by virtue of which the artist earns the title of inventor and not of servile copyist.’ He also noted, ‘In art, there is no need for colour; I see only light and shade.’
Dominated by a palette of black, white, ochre and grey, and featuring a range of bleak subjects, Goya’s Black Paintings, executed between 1819 and 1823, perhaps best describe his distaste for contemporary society. The most famous work from this series, Saturn, shows the mythical god (father of Jupiter) in the act of devouring his son.
Originally painted as murals, these scenes were chipped off the walls of Goya’s villa — called the House of the Deaf Man — in 1874 and later donated to the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
In the same period (1815 and 1823), Goya produced his last major series of prints: Los Proverbios (The Proverbs), also known as Los Disparates (The Follies). This portfolio of 18 dream-like compositions (with a further four added later) features scenes relating to a range of subjects from politics to the Spanish carnival, leading to numerous interpretations.
From Manet, who would nod to Goya’s Maja with his own nude Olympia (1863), to Picasso, who admired the artist’s series of prints on bullfighting, Goya’s importance to modern painters is undeniable. His influence continued throughout the 20th century and is still prevalent today — Francis Bacon painted his own horrors of war, while the enfants terribles of the YBA movement, Jake and Dinos Chapman, reworked Goya’s prints.
Though he enjoyed great success as a court painter, Goya withdrew from public life in his later years, no doubt dogged by his increasing deafness and fear of old age and madness — as suggested by the many images of lunatics and asses in his prints. Under the new king Ferdinand VII (1784-1833) he was told, ‘You deserve to be garrotted, but you are a great artist so we forgive you.’ When the political climate in Spain became too unstable, he exiled himself to Bordeaux, where he died in 1828.
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