Whatever may have been the cause of Francisco Goya‘s illness in late 1792, it had profound and lasting effects on him and transformed his art. As late as March the following year, he was still reported as suffering from noises in his head (tinnitus, almost certainly), although his sight was improving and he no longer suffered from vertigo. He had certainly returned to Madrid by early June, and was out and about again in the city. However, in March France declared war on Spain.
Goya’s Self-portrait in the Studio is perhaps his most famous, but its dating remains controversial. Some argue that it was painted when he was working on early tapestry cartoons back in 1785, but others consider that he painted it either shortly before or just after his illness of 1792-93. Although dressed to impress or even resemble one of his favourite Majos, with a remarkable hat covered in metal clips, it turns out to be a lot less pretentious than might appear. The clips on his hat, for instance, enabled him to attach candles so that he could paint in the dark. His palette is charged with no more than a dozen colours, and the diffuse backlighting is also typical of many of his works.
During his convalescence in 1793, Goya painted a series of works, some of them on tinplate, which he sent to Iriarte, a connoisseur and collector, for them to be shown to the Academicians. Eight of them show various scenes from bullfighting, but there are a further six which tackle very different themes.
The Strolling Players (1793) is the lightest of these, showing a small cast of itinerant actors in the commedia dell’arte of the time. This appears to be set on the bank of the River Manzanares in Madrid, with a packed audience behind its stage. This may be the first record of the commedia in Spain.
Fire at Night (1793-94) is a dramatic painting which relies on subtle suggestion for its effect. A seething mass of people are removing casualties from the burning building at the left. There are flames and thick black smoke billowing up into the night sky, and its victims are dressed for bed.
Although it has been suggested that The Shipwreck (1793-94) might show the Biblical flood, the breaking waves and rocky coastline make it more likely to show survivors coming ashore from a stricken vessel, and this is confirmed by a couple of barrels as flotsam to the left. Although Goya spent much of his life inland, he had also travelled by sea, and must have been familiar with many stories of shipwreck.
The last of these, showing the Yard of a Madhouse (1794), perhaps sets the scene for Goya’s future paintings, with its disturbing glimpse into the tormented lives of those effectively imprisoned as a result of mental illness. They wrestle and shriek down in the gloom beneath its walls, while there’s the bright light of hope in the sky above.
In August 1795, his brother-in-law the painter Francisco Bayeu died, following which Goya was appointed Director of Painting at the Royal Academy. He then spent almost a year in Andalucia, presumably hoping for some improvement in his deafness. When he returned to Madrid in 1797, though, he felt he had no choice but to resign that position, and was recognised by being made an honorary director in recognition of his contribution to the Academy.
In addition to portraits, in the late 1790s Goya made several large series of drawings, many of which he turned into prints. Among the more famous of these is Los Caprichos, caprices from 1797-98. At the same time, he was painting six works on the theme of witchcraft, for the study of the Duchess of Osuna. There was nothing inherently sinister about these: it was a popular subject at the time, and some of the artist’s friends seem to have been fascinated by it. But taken together with the themes above these show a changed tone in his art from the lighthearted country scenes for earlier tapestries, to a gathering darkness in the soul.
Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath from 1797-98 is perhaps the clearest vision of a “witches’ sabbath” from this period. His devil is a billy goat with lyre-shaped horns and evil human-like posture, and above that are several dark shapes of flying bats.
Witches’ Flight (1798) shows three witches levitating in the air, while carrying a naked body, which they appear to be exorcising. Below them are a donkey and another two human figures, one shrouded in a white sheet to cover their eyes, the other lying on the ground covering their ears – a possible reference to Goya’s own deafness and tinnitus at the time.
Janis A Tomlinson (2020) Goya, A Portrait of the Artist, Princeton UP. ISBN 978 0 691 19204 8.
Pierre Gassier and Juliet Wilson (1981) The Life and Complete Work of Francisco Goya, 2nd English edition, Harrison House. ISBN 0 517 353903.