PRINT March 2004


Francisco de Goya

IT IS AN ART HISTORY 101 TRUISM that Francisco de Goya is the Father of Modern Painting, and a truth of art history that later painters, in fact associated with modernism as a style, acknowledge him as an influence. But one may stand in a paternal relationship to modernists without being modern oneself—after all, Velázquez inspired Manet without anyone caring to push the origins of modernism back to the time of Philip IV. And Goya’s philosophy of painting stands far closer to Velázquez and Rembrandt than to Manet. Dark and light, for example, carry a moral, if not metaphysical, meaning in his work, as they do in Caravaggio and Zurbarán. He found modes of representation in Baroque painting that suited what became his entrenched mood after sustaining a profound change in spirit, the effect of a mysterious and lingering illness that struck him in 1792 when he was in his late forties and left him permanently deaf. If anything, Goya was a late-Baroque master with what we might call a Gothic imagination. His topic was human folly, which he addressed with the satiric ferocity of ancient comedy. True, he did write, “There are no rules in painting,” which may correspond to a modern attitude but does not explain why it is held.

Had the illness carried him off, Goya would be known to history primarily, if at all, as a minor master of the Spanish Rococo—a painter of cartoons for the Royal Tapestry Factory at Santa Bárbara, under the supervision of the Neoclassicist Anton Mengs. Doll-like figures, in silken gowns or embroidered knee breeches and buckled slippers, engage in country pleasures and more or less innocent pastimes: swinging beneath leafy boughs; joining hands in blindman’s buff; daydreaming under a parasol held by a servant. His final piece for the factory, finished in 1792, depicts four smirking girls holding a blanket, tossing a straw mannequin helplessly into the air—a scene of ambiguous eroticism, which anticipates his later vision. Only two years later, in 1794, Goya produced a dozen disturbing cabinet paintings “to occupy my imagination, tormented as it is by contemplation of my sufferings.” There is a shipwreck; a tangle of figures fleeing a fire; brigands robbing a stagecoach, with one man, on his knees among the corpses, pleading for his life; shackled prisoners under a heavy arch; a yard with lunatics; a gored picador—dark images, he wrote, “which normally find no place in commissioned works.” The shift, figuratively speaking, from a world in which there are no shadows to one in which there is no light is not a normal stylistic evolution. It cries out for biographical explanation.

No one really knows what caused the illness, but all three of these biographies feel constrained to address the issue. Evan S. Connell, in Francisco Goya, speculates that it was lead poisoning; Werner Hofmann, like others, opts for syphilis, leaving unexplained, as Robert Hughes observes, the fact that Goya survived until eighty-two, with no sign of degeneration. But nothing clinical explains the transformation of vision, which henceforward colored everything the artist did: “It had set his work on a new track . . . open to development in the direction he felt impelled to take,” writes Hughes. Hofmann believes otherwise: “The illness did not bring about a change of philosophy or a creative spur.” Whether he was fed up with tapestry design (Hughes) or merely “ceased to restrict himself to typically Spanish scenes” as a consequence of the illness (Hofmann) is unresolved. Hofmann hesitates to read the “nightmare visions” as “commentaries on the upheavals that had been shaking the French nation since 1789” but settles, on the basis of no palpable evidence, for seeing them as “rather like storm clouds drifting across from these huge and terrible events.” Hughes, more psychological, explains them as “emblematic” of Goya’s emotional symptoms, especially the gored picador: “a terrible image of Goya’s own fear of impotence.” That sounds like a late-modern male preoccupation—why not a fear of madness, as in the painting of lunatics, or a loss of freedom, as in the chained prisoners? Connell remains mute, turning to other matters. The differences tell us more about the biographers than about their subject. Given present knowledge, I side with Connell.

For his part, Hofmann is a chronic overinterpreter. Thus he uses The Straw Manikin, 1791–92, as an image through which to explicate a drawing, What Cruelty, begun in 1808, showing a man being tortured: “Like the Straw Manikin that once served as a toy for girls to throw in the air, this figure is now being tested by unseen torturers, to see how many fractures and distortions the appar- ently automatic piece of apparatus can inflict on the human anatomy. . . . Are the torturers afraid of witnesses, or do they wish to deny their victim the comfort of the Saviour’s presence? In this way Goya avoids confronting victim with Saviour.” This is a pretty heavy-duty way of seeing a fairly sunny painting, which Hughes reads as “Goya’s acid comment on the power of women over men, and on what seemed to him the waning of traditional Spanish masculinity.” I see no evidence of the latter, but the eroticism of The Straw Manikin has to be conceded: It really could allegorize the war between the sexes, which is certainly a theme that runs through Los Caprichos, 1796–97, a suite of eighty etchings.

The central image in Los Caprichos is the famous plate 43, El Sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters), usually taken as a self-portrait, which stands outside the world depicted in the remaining prints somewhat in the way in which Rodin’s Thinker presides over The Gates of Hell from a position in its upper register. The prints employ a unifying blackness, created by a brilliant use of aquatint, that Hughes insightfully describes as “deep, thick, mysterious . . . against which figures appear with such solidity and certainty, and yet with such apparitional strangeness.” It is the strangeness of dreams. Hofmann gets carried away by the fact that “sueño” is ambiguous as between “dream” and “sleep” in Spanish, but the crepuscularity of the world of the Caprichos symbolizes the ambiguity. Plato speaks of tyrants as living out in waking life what most of us only dream about, and I feel that the characters in Los Caprichos belong at once to life and dream—or imply that life is a dream, as in Calderón’s famous title, to which Goya gives a moral edge. It helps him find imaginative means to represent, wryly, the defining follies of human life. Hughes quotes Goya in an advertisement for the etchings as stating that he is using painting as literature—to “criticize human error and vice”—and that he has “selected from amongst the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society [employing] forms and poses which have existed previously in the darkness and confusion of an irrational mind, or one which is beset by uncontrolled passion.” And the artist concludes: “Painting (like poetry) chooses from universals,” implying that his target is not Spain in particular.

Perhaps the same thing can be said about the cabinet paintings of 1794. They have no specific reference to events the viewer need know about but are universally understood as modes of human suffering. The comedy of the sexes is universal enough that Goya’s old and young men and women would have been understood by the Greeks and the Romans, and though the Inquisition figures specifically enough that Goya’s abrupt withdrawal of his prints from sale has been explained with reference to his fears of that scary institution, clerics as enforcers of orthodoxy are to be found wherever religion prevails. Unquestionably, allusions have been lost to us, the way visual puns have been—not every image is grasped as immediately as plate 54, El Vergonzoso, in which a man’s nose looks exactly like a penis. Connell, as a novelist, senses certain resentments against the Duchess of Alba where the rest of us might think merely of generic misogyny in certain of the Caprichios. What is known is that Goya spent several months at the duchess’s estate at Sanlúcar after she was widowed, and there is an album of drawings that imply some degree of intimacy. Hofmann takes it for granted that he saw what he drew, disregarding the possibility of fantasy and graphic reverie. “Until Sanlúcar,” Connell writes, “he had looked upon women as decorative shapes scattered along the banks of the Manzanares shaded by parasols, graceful creatures festooned with ribbons, untouchable delicacies, animated dolls on swings and balconies.” How, on this account, are we to explain Señora Goya’s twenty pregnancies? At Sanlúcar drawings are earthy: A masked woman shows her bottom. A servant empties a chamber pot while her mistress sleeps. There is a famous portrait of the great lady pointing with her ringed finger to the inscription SOLO GOYA—“Only Goya”—in the ground she stands on. “This is not what she feels, but what Goya hopes,” Hughes writes. But who knows whether sexual disappointment was the occasion for Los Caprichos?

Goya’s extraordinary depictions of the cruelties of war have a topical pertinence because of the striking parallels between Bush’s effort to bring democracy to Iraq and Napoléon’s effort to bring Enlightenment values to Spain in 1808, which instilled in the Spanish what an early encyclopedia essay on the Peninsular War describes as a “loathing beyond the bounds of humanity.” We owe the term guerrilla to the Spanish resistance, which led to atrocities on both sides. Interestingly, Goya described Los Desastres de la Guerra, 1810–14, as caprichos, seeming to imply that he situated himself above the battle. In fact he was conflicted, the way someone in Iraq would be who believed in democracy but resented American intervention. Goya counted himself an illustrado, meaning that he welcomed the French as bearers of Enlightenment values, and in fact worked for Joseph Bonaparte, whom Napoléon set as puppet on the Spanish throne. But he was also a patriot, even if he could not share the devotion of his countrymen for the Bourbon monarchy, which brought extreme reaction when it was restored. The guerrilla battle cry was “Viva las cadenas”—“Long live the chains.” It is difficult to see Goya’s horrifying images simply as further evidence of human folly, but here as elsewhere, his is not an easy mind to penetrate, as these biographies attest.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University and a contributing editor of Artforum.


Evan S. Connell, Francisco Goya (New York: Counterpoint), 254 pages.

Robert Hughes, Goya (New York: Knopf), 429 pages.

Werner Hofmann, Goya: “To Every Story There Belongs Another” (New York: Thames & Hudson), 336 pages.