Francisco Goya: A life in paintings

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Self-portrait in the Studio (1785/1790-95), oil on canvas, 42 x 28 cm, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last four months I have been looking at the life and paintings of the great Spanish master Francisco Goya (1746–1828). This article brings this series to a close by looking at a small selection of his most important paintings, although next week I will publish a detailed list of contents to all eighteen articles in the series.

From his childhood and youth in and near the Spanish city of Zaragoza, Goya was brought up in the tradition of religious works of art in churches. His first major work was commissioned in October 1771 for the basilica in that city.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Adoration of the Name of God (study) (1771-72), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Museo de Zaragoza, Zaragoza, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

This oil study for the whole fresco, Adoration of the Name of God (1771-72), popularly known as ‘La gloria’, may well have been submitted for approval before he started work on the vault. His finished fresco is about fifteen metres across, and payments for this at last made Goya a professional artist.

He went on to paint many cartoons to be turned into tapestries for members of the royal family, initially showing hunting and sporting scenes. During this court work, he became fascinated by the Majas and Majos, the bright young things in Madrid, with their distinctive behaviour, and his paintings of them are among the richest documentation of this period in Spanish social history. During the nineteenth century, these Majas and Majos gradually evolved into the flamenco dancers and bullfighters who became the foreigner’s view of typical Spanish people.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), The Parasol (August 1777), oil on canvas, 104 x 152 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The Parasol, delivered to be woven into a tapestry in August 1777, shows a young couple in detail. She holds a fan, and has a lapdog. Her eyes are large and dark, and her face lit unusually thanks to the parasol.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), The Family of the Infante Don Luis (1783), oil on canvas, 248 x 330 cm, Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, Traversetolo, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Much of Goya’s work at court was portraiture, including this group of The Family of the Infante Don Luis, painted in 1783 at Arenas de San Pedro. The ‘infante’ is Luis de Borbón y Farnesio (1727–1785), youngest brother of King Carlos III. In 1776, he married María Teresa de Vallabriga (at the centre, attended by her hairdresser), who was 34 years younger and not royalty, making the marriage ‘morganatic’, and something of a problem to the King and state. The couple had three children who had no entitlement to a place in the succession, and to ensure that they posed no threat, they were forbidden from approaching the capital, Madrid. Goya increased the informality of this group by adding himself at work, at the lower left.

In July 1786, Goya was at last appointed Painter to the King, and held that position until the king’s death in December 1788. His first substantial commission was to provide a set of thirteen cartoons to be turned into tapestries for the dining room at El Pardo. The Royal Tapestry Factory was being reorganised, and was in need of work for the king.

Goya presented his sketches for these in the autumn of 1786, and the completed paintings were delivered the following year. They consist of a central series of the seasons, rightly recognised today as one of Goya’s finest series of paintings, together with some more social realist images.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), The Threshing Floor (sketch) (1786), oil on canvas, 34 x 76 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Probably the finest of all Goya’s cartoons is that for summer, seen here in the sketch of The Threshing Floor (1786). Although the huge finished version is more finely detailed, his brushwork there is also surprisingly loose.

Goya sometimes got carried away in painting these cartoons, resulting in complaints from the factory that they were unable to use his images.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), The Meadow of San Isidro on his Feast Day (1788), oil on canvas, 42 x 90 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

A good example is his highly detailed sketch of The Meadow of San Isidro on his Feast Day (1788), which only measures 42 by 90 cm. It combines figures of the upper classes in the foreground, a crowd in the middle distance, and a superb panorama of the City of Madrid in the background. It stands as one of his great paintings, but hardly suitable for the weavers.

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.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Witches’ Sabbath (1797-98), oil on canvas, 43 x 30 cm, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

His 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.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Carlos IV of Spain and His Family (1800-01), oil on canvas, 280 x 336 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

In April 1800, Goya was commissioned by King Carlos IV to paint a family portrait, which proved to be the last of his royal commissions before the war with France, and his most important. It’s often said that Goya’s inspiration for his large canvas of Carlos IV of Spain and His Family (1800-01) was Velázquez’ Las Meninas, but what he has painted is different in almost every respect other than the fact that the artist has taken the opportunity to include a self-portrait of himself painting the painting, as it were. Goya captures a moment of optimism when Spain and France were allies, and portrays his royal figures in stark reality.

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Francisco Goya (1746–1828), La maja vestida (The Clothed Maja) (c 1800), oil on canvas, 95 x 190 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Probably slightly after that, Goya painted a controversial pair of full-length portraits: La maja vestida, The Clothed Maja, and a matching version of the same model nude. These didn’t come to light until 1808, when investigators of the Inquisition discovered them being curated by one Don Francisco de Garivay. Eventually the artist himself was summoned, and despite the overt eroticism in both paintings, he escaped unscathed.

The war with invading French forces was a period of great distress to Goya, who remained in Madrid for much of the time, and was unable to give a painted account until six years later. His two most famous paintings of this showed the rebellion of the people of Madrid against Napoleon’s troops on 2 May 1808, an uprising which led to fierce battles. The following day, before dawn, the French forces rounded up and shot hundreds of the rebels at various locations in Madrid.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), The Second of May 1808 (The Charge of the Mamelukes) (1814), oil on canvas, 266 x 345 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The Second of May 1808, also widely known as The Charge of the Mamelukes (1814) shows the vicious fighting between the citizens of Madrid and a detachment of Mameluke mercenaries of the French Imperial Guard in the Puerta del Sol. Although today the less well-known of this pair, and the less modern in style, it’s a powerful image of street fighting. Goya has toned down the buildings surrounding the scene so that they appear to be painted scenery, but his deep perspective prevents them from appearing flat.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May) (1814), oil on canvas, 266 x 345.1 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Goya’s depiction of the early morning executions of The Third of May 1808 (1814) is the more radical. He adopts the clear colours and form which had been popularised in the paintings of David, combining that with the narrative technique which he had honed in an earlier series of six paintings telling the story of Friar Pedro, and creates what must be the first major modern painting of the century.

The scene is set by the hill of Príncipe Pío, in the area known now as Moncloa. As it’s still dark, he recesses the distant buildings into the night and places his martyr-heroes in the spotlight. The firing squad is arrayed in military style, regular and rhythmic at the right. Their victims are a ragged assortment of terrified citizens, the next to be shot wearing a white shirt of surrender, with his arms reminiscent of the crucified Christ.

In 1819, Goya bought himself a retirement villa on the outskirts of Madrid. He then set about decorating its walls with a series of extraordinary images, known as his Black Paintings. I have chosen just one of these for this overview.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat) (1821-23), oil on plaster transferred to canvas, 140.5 x 435.7 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

The interpretation of these paintings is controversial. Some envisage a deaf, lonely Goya conjuring up tormented images as he struggled with old age. He was certainly deaf, as he had been since his severe illness in 1792, but he was far from lonely, living with a young and attractive housekeeper who may have been his partner. We can only speculate.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta (1820), oil on canvas, 114.6 x 76.5 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

Goya suffered another bout of severe illness at the end of 1819 which almost killed him. It was only through the care of his doctor, Eugenio García Arrieta, that he survived. Once he was well enough, Goya painted his Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta (1820), which he presented to the doctor in gratitude.

I haven’t looked at any of Goya’s print series, but in his final few years, when he had retired to live in France with his housekeeper and companion, and her two children, he devoted much of his time to drawing and print-making. The exception to this is a unique series of miniatures which he painted in watercolour on small slivers of ivory, using an experimental technique derived from his prints.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Maja and Celestina (1824-25), watercolour on ivory, 5.4 x 5.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Of the dozen or so survivors of these miniatures, this Maja and Celestina combines one of his young Majas with an old woman representing the legendary procuress known as Celestina.

Francisco Goya ranks among the greatest of Spanish artists, and one of the masters of the European canon. From his traditional roots he brought us modern and innovative paintings which we can never forget. I hope that you have enjoyed exploring his paintings as much as I have.



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.