14 Unsettling Paintings by Goya That Would Leave You Anxious
Horror, disturbance, fear, and dread
"A hag or a witch grins ghoulishly over a bowl of food, an evil-looking figure whispers in the ear of an old man, a drowning dog lost in an unidentifiable mass, and the most disturbing out of them is the demonic figure with wide eyes and swallowing the body of his own child."
Francisco Goya's Black Paintings radiated horror, disturbance, fear, and dread.
From dramatic, exuberant portraits of the royal family of Charles IV of Spain and His Family to disfigured lost human beings in A Pilgrimage to San Isidro.
From the bright and aesthetically pleasing tapestry of Dance of the Majos at the Banks of Manzanares to murky and dark backgrounds in The Fates.
From being a court painter to the Spanish Crown to becoming progressively pessimistic.
What went wrong?
Why did Goya turn his vibrant world into something so distressful?
What made him pessimistic about portraying the darker side of humanity?
Why these Black Paintings?
Let's find out.
Goya's undiagnosed illness and political upheaval in Spain
In 1793, Goya contracted an undiagnosed disease, which left him deaf. The sickness could be syphilis or polio.
But according to historians, the most widely accepted view of Goya's resentment of society was-
1. The tyrannical Spanish inquisition.
2. Peninsular war.
3. And Napoleon's invasion of Spain.
The Spanish aristocracy became mere puppets in the hands of Napoleon and war left the common man homeless.
Creation of Black Paintings
Goya painted a series of 14 paintings called The Black Paintings.
The exact timeline and sequence of when these paintings were started and completed are unknown. It is guesstimated that these were created between 1819–1823.
Around 1819, Goya moved to a country house called Quinta del Sordo (Deaf Man's Villa).
These creations could purely be a reflection of his -
• state of mind
• fear of insanity
• and bleak outlook toward humanity
In actuality, these paintings were unnamed and created only by him and for him. These were never intended to leave the villa.
Only after 50 years, these murals cut from the walls of his villa and brought to the public's eye by restorer Salvador Martínez Cubells.
Art historians studied and named these 14 anonymous pieces.
Let's discuss each of them in detail.
1. El Perro (The Dog)
This painting is also known as Goya's Dog, Buried Dog, or Half Drowned Dog.
The dog's tiny head is visible and seems stuck in quicksand or a giant mass.
His snout lifts, ears pull back, and he faces the sky.
But the vast ochre sky pulls our attention. It intensifies the dog's loneliness. The dog's eyes paint the mood of the entire painting. As if he has resigned and succumbed to his fate.
This painting symbolizes the 'hopelessness' in Goya's personal life and the war and death in Spain.
What struck me is that the painting is so minimal in work yet powerful in execution.
2. Viejos comiendo sopa (Two Old Ones Eating Soup)
In this image, the left figure seems to be a witch or a hag. The gender is unidentified. Bald, with no teeth, they both gazes at something.
With grins on its face and pointing at the spoon, they seem to offer the soup to someone.
As usual, the background is ghastly, the lighting is bleak, and the image looks morbid.
This painting possibly portrays famine, hunger, and death in Spain. It could also represent old demented couple.
3. Dos viejos (Two Old Men)
• A grotesque animalistic figure appears to howl in an ear of an older man.
• The older man looks utterly distressful and clenches his walking cane.
• The dark black background pulls the viewer in an uncomfortable setting.
This picture could directly portray Goya's deafness and illness worsening as time passed.
4. Judith y Holofernes (Judith and Holofernes)
The famous biblical story of a Jewish widow Judith, who kills a Syrian general Holofernes.
Not sure why Goya chose this theological piece, but it could be a direct attack on the incompetent and despotic leader of Spain - Ferdinand VII of Spain. Under his reign, Napoleon took over Spain.
Perhaps Spain is represented by Judith and Ferdinand VII is Holofernes.
5. La Leocadia (The Seductress)
The woman wears a black dress and a black veil. She leans over a large black mass, which some said to be a burial mound, and explains her attire too.
The woman is believed to be Goya's first wife, Josefa Bayeu but the widely accepted belief is that she is Goya's maid and caretaker Leocadia Weiss.
Weiss lived with Goya until his death. There were speculations that both were romantically linked.
6. El gran cabrón (Witches' Sabbath)
This is one of the most popular Black paintings.
In this picture, Satan takes the mortal form of a black goat. He wears his ceremonial black robe and preaches to a mob.
The mob looks equally grotesque.
On the other hand, his first version of Witches' Sabbath looks visually appealing and artistically mature.
This painting was his condemnation of superstition and witchcraft propagated by the Spanish Inquisition.
7. Rina a garrotazos (Fight with Cudgels)
The two men are engaged in a violent brawl with their knees dug deep in mud or quicksand. The blood drips from the temple of the man on the left.
The background has a few more colors compared to other black paintings, but the ambiance is gloomy and unsettling
8. Dos Mujeres y un hombre (Man Mocked by Two Women)
The two women laugh and stare weirdly at the man. The woman next to the man has a wide grin and teeth.
Historians believe the two women to be prostitutes or witches mocking a man who is either disabled or inappropriately pleasuring himself.
Do his expressions show sexual ecstasy? Note the man's hand is resting over his groin area.
9. Asmodea (Fantastic vision)
The background shows a mountain and a troop of people marching towards it. Maybe prisoners of war or refugees? Critic Evan Connell notes that the mountain's shape resembles Gibraltar, a refuge for Spanish liberals.
The foreground has two men levitating in the air. They possess expressions of fear and anxiety.
Just across the other side of the mountain is a man with a gun. With a red feather in his cap, he is perhaps a military man.
10. La Lectura (Men Reading)
This painting shows a group of men gathered together and reading a book. They seem to be nervously studying on ways to save themselves from a catastrophe.
Note the man at the back, looking at the sky and waiting for a miracle to happen.
Although the Black Paintings are neither episodic nor have any connection, the paintings exhibit a common line of thought if we put them side by side.
11. Atropos/Las Parcas (The Fates)
This is my favorite of all the Black Paintings.
This painting is Goya's reinterpretation of the mythological subject of goddess Destiny- the Moirai or fates.
• The group called 'The Daughters of Night' is headed by Atropos, goddess of death, who carries a pair of scissors to cut the thread of life.
• Clotho is represented by a doll who spins the thread of life.
• Lachesis holds a mirror, symbolizing time.
• The fourth figure in the foreground with his hands tied is possibly Prometheus, who was punished for stealing fire from Mount Olympus.
12/13 El Santo Official (Pilgrimage to the Fountain of San Isidro)
These two paintings show a pilgrimage to San Isidro's Hermitage of Madrid.
San Isidro was a patron Saint of farmers. There is an expression of horror on all their faces.
They seem drunken and bewildered. As usual, the setting is murky.
14. Saturno devorando a su hijo (Saturn Devouring His Son)
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung says, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."
Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son tops all lists of grim, gory, gruesome, and ghastly paintings.
Saturn, the demonic figure, with wide eyes, is swallowing the body of his own child. Satan's fear that one of his child would one day overthrow him results in him eating them one by one upon their birth.
Goya was an artist operating in his own space and time, not communicating anything to anyone, expressing himself to himself alone.
1. The Strange Translation of Goya's 'Black Paintings'
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I’ve always adored Saturn Devouring His Son for the grimness and bloodiness of it. With so many depictions of the myth acting as though he swallowed them whole, it’s fascinating to see one in which he is actually ripping the body up and consuming it. I do have to wonder, though, if the paintings were all unnamed and painted only for the artist to see, how did art historians settle upon this being Saturn eating one of his children with no label to go on or any tell-tale signs from the mythology in the painting?
I have been a fan for years, but I did not know the back stories. Thank you for this one!
There's such beauty in the horror of the artwork, a great insight into this less-known artist much more deserving of higher status than currently given. Great article!
I saw Saturn Devouring His Son as an astrology enthusiast - discussion on Capricorn and Saturn go hand in hand. Quite grateful to have read this and seen where it originated with context, thank you!