For Francisco Goya (1746–1828) the year 1819 brought great change. At the end of February, he bought himself a villa with twenty-five acres of land on the right bank of the River Manzanares, just outside the city of Madrid. With its fine views of the city, it was the perfect place for his retirement at the age of seventy-three. He completed The Last Communion of St Joseph Calasanz, shown in the previous article, and in the Prado in Madrid the Royal Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time.
At the end of that year, though, Goya fell ill and almost died, had it not been for the intervention of Doctor Eugenio García Arrieta. Early the following year, when he had recovered, the artist expressed his thanks to the doctor in the form of a double portrait of the doctor and his patient, which I show in the next article. Goya had certainly recovered sufficiently by April 1820, when he was recorded as swearing allegiance to another king and constitution in the Royal Academy.
Away from the oppressive atmosphere in the city, the Inquisition, and the descent of Spain into chaos, Goya decided to decorate the walls of his villa Quinta del Sordo with his own paintings, applying oil paint directly to its plaster. The results are his Black Paintings, a collection of his nightmare visions. In this article and tomorrow’s, I show those works, which have been transferred from their original plaster support to canvas, and hang now in the Prado.
There are fourteen in all. In this article, I show seven with obvious and narrative associations, and the remainder tomorrow.
Asmodea (Fantastic Vision) shows a man and a woman in flight above a landscape featuring a tabled mountain, which might represent the Rock of Gibraltar. In the right foreground are French soldiers who are firing at people in the middle distance, probably a reference to the events of 1808 in Madrid.
Facing Asmodea is Atropos, or the Fates, showing Lachesis, the spinner of the thread of life, Clotho, with a distaff of a doll, and Atropos, with her shears to cut the thread and bring death. The fourth figure is not readily identifiable, and there has been much speculation as to its identity and meaning.
Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son is the most famous of these Black Paintings, and the most horrific, as a portrayal of the Titan Cronus eating one of his sons to ensure that they wouldn’t grow up to usurp him.
Judith and Holofernes is a relatively restrained depiction of this famous story from the Old Testament, which centres on death and desire.
Beside these dark images are two paintings of religious rites, although there’s dispute about exactly what they show.
A Pilgrimage to San Isidro refers to Goya’s earlier painting of this feast. As that previous work was festive, this later version is a nightmare written in the agony of the faces of those at the front of the procession.
Pilgrimage to the Fountain of San Isidro is also known as Promenade of the Holy Office. This long mass of people are processing at the foot of near-vertical slopes on which are trees clinging precariously. The man in the right foreground is drinking from a bottle, and other faces appear other-worldly.
Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat) refers back to Goya’s earlier paintings of witchcraft for the Duchess of Osuna, with the black-cloaked figure of the devil incarnate as a billy-goat, sat in front of a mass of hideous women gathered at their Sabbath.
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.