The Europeans, no 14: Francisco Goya

Goya mocked the vanity of the upper classes and portrayed the horrific effects of violence on civilians


Francisco Goya was born near Zaragoza in 1746, the son of a gilder. Sent, aged 14, to study under local artist José Luzán, he later went on to Madrid, where he was taught by the Bohemian-German Anton Mengs but fell out with his master and failed to qualify for the city’s art academy.

In the early 1770s he studied and painted in Italy. Returning home, he married, and through his brother-in-law’s influence found work as a painter of cartoons (designs on canvas) for the Royal Tapestry Factory.

These were mostly cheerful works, featuring scenes of the upper classes engaged in hunting or innocent leisure, though some, even at this early stage of Goya’s career, show a penetrating eye for – and slyly oblique angle on – the human condition.

In The Straw Mannequin , four pretty, smiling young ladies toss a stuffed dummy representing a young man in a sheet – not perhaps the most difficult of works to interpret.

Goya’s career prospered in the 1780s in tandem with his connections to, and portraits of, influential patrons like the Count of Floridablanca and the Duke of Osuna.

In 1786 he was appointed painter to the king. His 1800 portrait of Charles IV and his family is perhaps most remarkable for the contrast between the royal couple’s splendid costumes and their stupid faces; oddly, Goya does not seem to have felt the need to flatter.

The poet Théophile Gautier thought the king and queen looked like the corner baker and his wife after they had won the lottery.

Like his distinguished predecessor Velásquez in Las Meninas , the artist insinuates himself into the corner of the painted scene.

In the early 1790s Goya contracted a serious illness which left him deaf. In the latter part of that decade he worked on a series of etchings which were published as Caprichos (caprices), sometimes nightmarish, often pointed and satirical works, as in the splendid As Far Back as his Grandfather , in which an ass contemplates, with considerable satisfaction, a book of portraits of his ancestors.

The vanity, stupidity and uselessness of the upper classes was becoming a theme in European art.

Jane Austen’s empty-headed Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion finds no pleasure in any reading other than the entry on his family in the Baronetage ; Sir Leicester Dedlock in Dickens’s Bleak House is the epitome of distinguished lineage and extinguished intelligence.

Goya’s portraits of those whose abilities or energy he admired, like the book collector Sebastián Martinez or the French ambassador Ferdinand Guillemardet, offer a strong contrast to his sometimes touching but often slightly comic pictures of aristocratic figures, like the Duchess of Alba, a rather blowsy lady with big hair whom he painted and sketched repeatedly and with whom he may have had an affair – or an infatuation.

Goya’s suspected liberal views (“French views”) put him on the wrong side when the monarchy was restored after the Peninsular War.

The Napoleonic invaders had abolished the Inquisition and encouraged reform, but the Spanish did not wish to have reason and progress imposed on them: even Robespierre, as early as 1792, had conceded that “no one loves armed missionaries”.

Departing from an artistic tradition which routinely glorified martial valour, Goya, in a new note, portrayed the horrific effects of violence on civilians in a series of prints known as The Disasters of War .

Increasingly isolated and despairing, he also created, on the walls of his house, the so-called Black Paintings , among them the horrific Saturn Devouring His Son .

Disgusted at the illiberalism and stupidity of the restored monarchy, he left Spain in 1824, dying four years later in Bordeaux.