Francisco Goya: 11 War

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Truth, Time and History (c 1812), oil on canvas, 294 x 244 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1808, everything changed for Goya, the court, and the whole of Spain. Until then, the country had been allied with France, to the point where it was their joint fleet which was defeated by Nelson and the Royal Navy in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. With the advent of Napoleon, the Bourbon royal family of Spain lost their alliance with the Bourbon line in France, and the new emperor soon started losing any allegiance he had to Spain. Riots drove King Carlos IV to abdicate on 19 March 1808, in favour of his son, Ferdinand VII, who turned to Napoleon for support. When that wasn’t forthcoming, he too abdicated just forty-eight days later, to spend the next six years confined to a French château. Spain was at war.

Early in this, Goya’s patron Godoy had fallen, beaten and imprisoned. Both the former prime minister and the artist were subjects for the Inquisition’s investigation of The Nude Maja too, which must have made this even more worrying for Goya, who remained in Madrid, keeping as low a profile as he could. Nevertheless, he was summoned for two brief portrait sittings by the new King Ferdinand VII. When fighting broke out in the capital, Goya must have witnessed horrifying scenes, some of which he was unable to commit to paint for six years: I will look at those in the next article.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Majas on a Balcony (1800-12), oil on canvas, 162 x 107 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

At some presumably earlier stage in these events, Goya painted two unusual variants on his long-lasting theme of Majas. Majas on a Balcony, made in the period 1800-12, is unusual for ignoring almost all the compositional advantages of the balcony. These two young women are at much the same height as the viewer, and there’s no clear inside or out, just a couple of shady guys skulking behind them, and the black iron balustrade fencing them in.

His major work during the period following the fighting in Madrid was the harrowing series of prints, The Disasters of War, which he made between 1808-10. These were influenced by the destruction which he saw for himself when he returned to his home city of Zaragoza in October 1808. Thankfully, he left shortly before Marshal Moncey arrived with Napoleon’s troops.

Francisco de Goya (1746–1828), Plague Hospital (from The Disasters of War) (1808-10), oil on canvas, 32 x 57 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the scenes shown in his print series also appear in paintings, such as this view of the inside of a Plague Hospital.

When Goya returned to Madrid, he had to take an oath of allegiance to Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, who had been installed as the successor to Ferdinand VII. By 1810, life – at least among the noble and wealthy – was slowly starting to return to order. Frequent public garottings had been added for the entertainment of citizens, but institutions like the Academy were gradually resuming their normal work.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Night Scene from the Inquisition (1810), oil on panel, 30.5 x 40 cm, Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.

Goya’s visions remained apocalyptic, with this Night Scene from the Inquisition from 1810, no doubt influenced by his own experiences.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Time and the Old Women (c 1810), oil on canvas, 181 x 125 cm, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Lille, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Even his theme of majas transformed into the grotesque Time and the Old Women (c 1810), which shows two majas well past their best admiring themselves in mirrors, with Father Time behind them.

Following the fighting, infectious diseases, and a severe famine which killed tens of thousands in 1811, Goya strangely painted twelve still lifes based on bodegone of meat and game, between 1808-1812. Of these, ten survive.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Still-Life: A Butcher’s Counter, A Sheep’s Head and Joints (1808-12), oil on canvas, 45 x 62 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Still-Life: A Butcher’s Counter is also known as A Sheep’s Head and Joints (1808-12).

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Still Life with Woodcocks (c 1808-12), oil on canvas, 42.5 × 62.6 cm, Meadows Museum, Dallas, TX. Image by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons.

Still Life with Woodcocks (c 1808-12) also makes grim comparison with Goya’s contemporary Disasters of War, although these may have been primarily intended to provide some relief from the shortage of food.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Burning Hospital (1808-12), oil on canvas, 72 x 99 cm, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Wikimedia Commons.

Further apocalyptic visions like this Burning Hospital (1808-12) were among his paintings of this period.

By 1812, some semblance of order and government was returning to Spain, despite the first guerilla war still being fought by many of the Spanish against their French invaders.

Francisco Goya Y Lucientes: Sanningen, Tiden och Historien.NM 5593
Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Truth, Time and History (c 1812), oil on canvas, 294 x 244 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Goya is thought to have painted Truth, Time and History in about 1812, when Spain’s new constitution was created. Father Time appears in classical form, with his sandglass held in his left hand, and magnificent spread wings. Truth, standing at the left, holds a burning taper, and History is sat dutifully keeping the record.

That year marked the turning point for Napoleon: his catastrophic campaign in Russia, and near-annihilation during his return, left French forces in Spain severely weakened. British troops under the Duke of Wellington seized their opportunity from Portugal, and in 1813 defeated the French at the Battle of Vitoria. The following year, King Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne.

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), The Duke of Wellington (1812-14), oil on mahogany, 64.3 x 52.4 cm, The National Gallery (Bought with aid from the Wolfson Foundation and a special Exchequer grant, 1961), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

Goya must have painted this resplendent portrait of The Duke of Wellington (1812-14) in exultation of that victory and restoration. Interestingly, he used the pigment orpiment for the metallic highlights, although it was rapidly falling into disuse by this time.

In 1814, Goya was ready to create two of the most important paintings of this period in Spanish history, one of which remains a major work in the European canon of art.


Spanish painting in the late eighteenth century: before David (this blog)
Spanish painting in the late eighteenth century: after David (this blog)


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.