The Mystery Behind Goya's Terrifying Black Paintings at the Prado in Madrid
Updated: Jan 17
The Prado Museum is Spain's cultural jewel and best museum. One of the highlights of a visit to the Prado is seeing Francisco Goya's haunting Black Paintings. They're riveting must see works at the Prado. The Black Paintings are some of the most disturbing artworks ever made.
They depict existential despondency over the human condition and edge-of-death despair. The paintings were startling when first discovered, and are so even now. Their off center composition, bleak color palette, and expressionistic quality were unprecedented and abrasively modern. They cut across classes and styles.
The Black Paintings stand out in the course of art history.
Goya, The Artist & Portraitist
Francisco Goya is a bit of an enigma. He was largely a self taught artist. But his success was rapid, a rags to riches type of tale. Over his lifetime, he went from provincial obscurity in Aragon, to the royal court, to exile in France. He was a satirist, a genius, and had a decided taste for the macabre.
Upon moving to Madrid, Goya rather quickly became the most famous painter in Spain, with no rival during his lifetime. His success was partly due to the fact that portraiture wasn't an abhorrent economical chore to him; he loved it. And Goya was a virtuoso. He captured not only his subjects' likenesses, but their personal expressiveness and individuality.
Goya became the official court painter for Charles IV and Ferdinand VII. He produced countless luminous works in the capacity, including many truthful portraits of both Enlightenment figures and the thugs of the royal court. Even of himself. He had an unflinching eye.
In fact, Goya was a portrait painter, first to last. His 160 known portraits tell the story of Spain. That fact is often neglected in view of his astonishing Black Paintings, but still true. His portraits are detailed and sublime. He claimed, “I have had three masters, Nature, Velázquez, and Rembrandt.” And his portraits reflect that influence.
Goya was one of the last great painters to want to know and tell the truth, a rather modern notion. Some of his portraits were radically truthful, deliberately unforgiving, and may have subtly satired his subjects.
For example, in Charles IV of Spain and His Family, the royal family is shown ostentatiously flaunting their wealth. The painting depicts a regal monarchy, but is also a shockingly naturalistic group portrait with awkward poses. Renoir said that the portrait looked “like a butcher’s family in their Sunday best.”
But you generally can't satirize people and keep your job. And Goya was rolling in cash at this time. So it's not likely a complete send up. And even the soon to be evil King Ferdinand VII on the left in blue looks quite dashing.
Goya's Politics & Paintings
Aside from his society portraits, Goya was also the painter of the people. He sometimes used paintings to express his disgust over the political climate. He was unpredictable, wild, and a little weird in his approach.
In 1807, Napoleon invaded Spain and installed his brother on the throne. On May 2, 1808, hundreds of Spaniards rebelled. On May 3, these Spanish freedom fighters were rounded up and massacred by the French. Blood ran through the streets of Madrid.
The slaughter of his countrymen and the horrors of war left a profound impression on Goya.
In 1814, the Bourbon monarchy was re-installed when Napoleon fell. Ferdinand VII was a disappointment. He didn't share his predecessor's enlightened views. He revoked the Constitution, reinstated the Inquisition, and declared himself absolute monarch. Not long afterward, Ferdinand launched a reign of terror.
Goya didn't like the exploitative regime.
Because of his political leanings, Goya was a marked man. Ferdinand VII thought Goya had collaborated with Napoleon. Ferdinand warned "Goya, not only do you deserve the death, but the Gallows! If I forgive you, it's because I admire you."
To prove his loyalty, Goya created two commissioned pantings commemorating the Spanish uprising: The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808. They were not your typical Salon paintings. In fact, they were unlike any previous war paintings.
The Third of May 1808 is Goya's most famous painting and perhaps the best painting in the Prado. It's painful to look at. In it, Goya depicts man's inhumanity to man, not a bloodless heroic affair. It's a blunt emotionally charged painting where the central figure, an anti hero with baffled raised arms, is killed on the side of the road like an animal by anonymous gunmen.
Because it's so raw, the painting was sent straight to storage, unseen by the public for 40 years. It's a chilling image, a powerful anti-war statement that later influenced Manet and Picasso.
Goya received no further commissions from the reactionary King Ferdinand VII. He seemed to know his days were numbered in monarchist Spain.
In 1819, Goya bought a farmhouse on the outskirts of Madrid, called Quintana del Sordo, or the Deaf Man's House. He became a recluse; he was essentially hiding out. At this juncture, Goya had been deaf for decades and was alienated from the Spanish royal court.
Ensconced in his hideaway, Goya painted for himself. He painted what he couldn't show to the public, the Black Paintings. Having left this "time capsule" on his home's walls, Goya abruptly departed for exile in France where he would die in 1828.
Today, Goya is one of the three pillars of the Prado’s permanent collection, along with his idol Diego Velázquez and Peter Paul Rubens.
Goya was a radical artist. He's sometimes described as "the last old master and the first modern painter." His work presaged both Expressionism and Surrealism. Because of his inventiveness, daring, and political engagement, Goya had an enormous impact on later artists.
Theories About The Derivation of Goya's Black Paintings
Goya’s sinister Black Paintings are mysterious. They were originally painted on the walls of his Quintana home, very late in this life, most probably between 1819-23. What was the creative force that created them? It's a mystery to this day.
It appears that Goya operated in his own space. None of the feverish and demonic Black Paintings were dated, signed, or titled by the artist. Goya never spoke or wrote about them, and apparently never showed them to anyone. Goya lived and painted like a hermit.
A half century after his death in 1828, the 14 murals were photographed by Jean Laurent. They were then hacked off the wallpapered walls and given to the Prado's art restorer, Salvador Martínez Cubello. He put them on canvas, albeit with some decided damage due to rudimentary techniques. Later, unable to sell them, he donated the paintings to Spain.
They have been on view at the Prado since 1889.
The Black Paintings are quite different than much of Goya's exiting oeuvre. These were no doll like portraits. No Salon commissions. Nothing was remotely neat and tidy. Or even coyly satirical. They were just intense.
The Black Paintings have been analyzed to death. There are three main decoding theories. No overarching theory prevails at the moment.
First, many art historians advocate a psychological reading. They believe that the paintings mirrored Goya's battered and tortured psyche. Before he created them, Goya had gone deaf (possibly form polio) and had suffered other illnesses.
Historians speculate that Goya had lost confidence, was aware of his physical decline, and had a fear of insanity. Essentially, they claim Goya became an aged, deaf, and misanthropic man.
The second theory is that the Black Paintings revealed Goya's political despondency. I find this more valid.
Goya had democratic leanings and Spain had been in tumult, with a rapid fire succession of liberal and authoritarian regimes. Spain was simultaneously marked by the Enlightenment, fervent Catholicism, and a widespread belief in the supernatural during that time. Everyone believed in witches.
Goya had witnessed famine, poverty and cruelty, from Napoleon's invasion of Spain and Ferdinand's Inquisition. And, significantly, he had painted man's inhumanity to man before in his famous May 1808 paintings and in his previous "The Disasters of War" series. Now, it seemed, Goya merely returned to this theme, in isolation and at liberty to paint what he wanted in secret.
This second theory makes more sense to me. The madness and violence of the war animated Goya's disillusioned paintings, not just his deafness. Goya had already lived with deafness for decades at that juncture. He was still a lively communicator and had learned sign language.
Moreover this second theory has gained traction in the stalemate that holds sway.
Recently, historians noticed that Goya painted Napoleon into one of his Black Painting, The Pilgrimage of San Isidro (detail shown below). Napoleon is the only figure staring directly at the observers and has an instantly recognizable face. Since then, 20 other political figures have been identified in Goya's Black Paintings.
These findings seem to contradict the belief that the paintings had no real meaning or were purely the products of Goya's psychiatric decline. They suggest that Goya intentionally created the Black Paintings in private because they were so incendiary. After creating them, he abruptly left for sanctuary in France where he would be safe from any ramifications.
And he left a little "gift" in his wake.
A third theory, one advanced by the Prado's in house Goya expert, Manuela Mena, is that Goya used the walls of his home to satirize and mock society. This makes sense too. Previously, Goya had created 80 acerbic prints in 1797-98 called Los Caprichos, which were published in book form in 1799.
In them, Goya relentlessly critiqued contemporary Spanish society. He satirized its “foibles and follies" and depicted witches, ghosts, and fantastic creatures. Because of the Inquisition, he tried to conceal overt political commentary with ambiguous titles. Not that many people were fooled, and Goya was reported to the Inquisition.
The Black Paintings may be of this "social speech" genre -- funny, blackly comic paintings using the walls of his home as "big sheets of paper" to depict man's fallen nature. This theory makes sense too, although the Black Paintings seem more earnest.
But Did Goya Paint The Black Paintings?
In 2003, art historian and professor Juan José Junquera shockingly claimed Goya was not the author of the Black Paintings.
As evidence, he pointed to deeds of sale that might suggest that Goya's Quintana home was a one floor dwelling with only a rustic staircase that went to an attic, not a second floor where the Black Paintings were found installed. Construction of the second floor, Junquero argued, didn't occur until after Goya's death. Quintana, he maintains, was a simple country home, not a manor house, and couldn't have housed the 14 massive paintings.
So the Black Paintings couldn't be Goya's. A startling concept. Junquera further argues that Goya's son Javier painted them and that Goya's grandson Mariano later passed them off as Goyas to earn a buck. Mariano was a profligate, chronically in need of funds.
It's a tantalizing theory because the Black Paintings are so different. But most Goya scholars reject Junquera's conjectures about authorship.
Nigel Glendinnning says he is "totally unconvinced by it" after reading the ambiguous archival documents. He says the documents don't actually say whether the house had one or two stories, that the paintings bear characteristics of Goya's work, and that Goya's son Javier was not a painter.
Manuela Mena, a senior curator and the museum's Goya expert, said: "Of course there is documentation to confirm that the Black Paintings are by Goya." And there are two contemporary accounts of the Black Paintings. The fact that there is so little evidence about Goya's intent is not surprising because all Goya's friends were dead at that point. There was no one left to tell the tale.
To be sure, the images are not terribly Goya-like in the abstract. There is a new rawness of content, a strange emptiness. They're cruder, stranger, and unlike other art he or anyone else produced in the 19th century.
But Goya always pushed boundaries with his subject matter. From the start, he was a topographer of the inner soul with a dark sensibility. He constantly tested the limits of decorum and good taste, with things lurking beneath the surface of his paintings. And Goya was a graphic chronicler of current events, much like Theordore Gericault.
Goya had painted dark ominous things before. His pre-existing Los Caprichos, the Disater of War series, and the paintings of May 1808 all show that Goya was entirely capable of creating the horror of the Black Paintings. The Black Paintings seem like a continuation of his more macabre style. Goya moved gradually, over time, from jolly and satirical to abjectly despondent.
Goya's Black Paintings at the Prado
We will assume they are his and his alone, as the Prado does.
Goya's Black Paintings are pessimistic images of human suffering, illness, poverty, witchcraft, and nightmarish imagery. They can be hard to look at and absorb even now. Teresa Vega, an art historian who leads Prado tours, has said:
“Some people can hardly even look at them. I’ve had plenty of clients who didn’t like them at all. But when they walk in, they are always surprised. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a visitor whose expression hasn’t changed. Even a yawning teenager will wake up when they see them.”
Let's examine a few of them. Many are already shown above. Here's the complete list of the Prado's 32 Goya paintings, which the Prado has created as a fabulous online gallery.
Goya's most famous Black Painting is undoubtedly Saturn Devouring His Son. It's based on Roman mythology. Saturn was a Roman god who came to power by overthrowing his father. It was prophesied that Saturn would suffer the same fate. To avoid kismet, Saturn swallowed his children whole.
Perhaps the most striking detail of the painting is Saturn's self awareness and evident distress. With his small head and bulging eyes, he has a crazed, anguished look on his face. He looks shocked at his own monstrousness. Art historians speculate that it reflects Goya's own fear of madness and death. But maybe it's Spain eating itself.
The painting has a similar palette to The Third of May, 1808. Its dark, rich colors dominate, but light draws our attention to the dramatic action. The work could be seen, within the context of Goya's time, as an allegory of the reactionary rule of Ferdinand VII.
The Dog is definitely my favorite of Goya's Black Painting. In it, a desperately expressive little dog with human features pleads for rescue, submerged up to its neck in a mud colored mire beneath a gloomy ochre hell. The philosophical dog seems lost in the emptiness of the image. He could be buried or half drowned.
In the final year of his life, the Surrealist painter Joan Miro visited the Prado to pay homage to Goya's The Dog. He sat in front of it for half an hour, before going to see Diego Velasquez's Les Meninas. As if they were equivalent in stature. That's how good The Dog really is.
The Dog could be a symbol of abandonment or neglect. It could symbolize the figure that guides dead souls to the underworld. The painting is a wasteland, and it is clear no help will arrive for the doomed dog. It shows that Goya knew that human destiny was not controlled by a benevolent god.
Two Old Men Eating Soup is one of the better preserved Black Paintings. It's unclear where exactly this painting was in Goya's Quintana home. Because of its smaller size, most experts assume it was painted above one of the doors. Whether it was upstairs or downstairs is unclear.
In it, two elderly figures loom in the paintings. The title sounds innocuous, but the paintings is not. The figures are assumed to be men, but their gender is unclear. They could be witches.
The paintings could relate to death. The person on the right has a skull for a head. The other has a toothless grimace and pig-like face. Perhaps they are pointing at Goya, saying he is next in line for the grim reaper. Or, the painting could be an allegory about greed and gluttony.