Francisco Goya Paintings Analysis Essay

"Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels."


Goya occupies a unique position within the history of Western art, and is often cited as both an Old Master and the first truly modern artist. His art embodies Romanticism's emphasis on subjectivity, imagination, and emotion, characteristics reflected most notably in his prints and later private paintings. At the same time, Goya was an astute observer of the world around him, and his art responded directly to the tumultuous events of his day, from the liberations of the Enlightenment, to the suppressions of the Inquisition, to the horrors of war following the Napoleonic invasion. Both for its inventiveness and its political engagement, Goya's art had an enormous impact on later modern artists. His unflinching scenes from the Peninsular War presaged the works of Pablo Picasso in the twentieth century, while his exploration of bizarre and dreamlike subjects in the Caprichos laid the foundation for Surrealists like Salvador Dalí. Goya's influence extends to the twenty-first century, as contemporary artists have also drawn inspiration from the artist's grotesque imagery and searing social commentary.

Key Ideas

Goya's formal portraits of the Spanish Court are painted in a lavish virtuoso style, and highlight the wealth and power of the royal household. On the other hand, the works have been seen to contain veiled, even sly, criticisms of the ineffectual rulers and their circle.

Goya is one of the greatest printmakers of all time, and is famous for his achievements in etching and aquatint. He created four major print portfolios during his career: the Caprichos, Proverbios, Tauromaquia, and The Disasters of War. Perhaps even more than his paintings, these works reflect the artist's originality and his true opinions about the social and political events of his day. The subject matter of his etchings veers from dreamlike to grotesque, documentary to imaginary, and humorous to harshly satirical.

Women occupy a central place within Goya's oeuvre, and his images of majas (the stylish and outlandish members of Spain's lower classes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), witches, and queens are some of his most daring and modern interpretations, depicting women in possession of their own powers, whether political or sexual. Many of these works have led to speculation about Goya's private life, for example his supposed affair with the Duchess of Alba.

Goya's late paintings are among the darkest and most mysterious of his creations. His series of 14 paintings from his farmhouse on the outskirts of Madrid (the so-called "Black Paintings") contain images of violence, despair, evil, and longing. They are the pessimistic expressions of an aging, deaf artist who was disillusioned with society and struggling with his own sanity. Their exploration of the dark forces at work in his own subconscious foreshadows the art of the Expressionists and Surrealists in the twentieth century.

Most Important Art

Charles IV of Spain and His Family (1800)

This portrait of the Spanish royal family was made at the height of Goya's career as a court painter. Unlike many of his earlier society and court portraits, which hewed more closely to the genre's conventions of flattery, this painting signals a new direction for the artist in its unflinchingly (some might say grotesquely) realistic depictions of its sitters. The artist based the composition on Velázquez's Las Meninas, which also includes a self-portrait of the artist in the act of painting the royal family. Here, Goya depicts himself in the shadows, standing in front of a large canvas (presumably the same one we now behold) in the far left background.

At the center of the composition, brilliantly lit, is the figure of Queen Maria Luisa, who holds the hand of her son Francisco (in vivid red) and her daughter, Maria Isabel. King Charles stands to her left: widely thought to be an ineffectual leader, his off-center placement provides a clue about the power dynamic of the family as well as their foibles and failings. Indeed, the Queen was believed to hold the real power, along with Prime Minister Manuel Godoy, with whom she had an affair (her illegitimate children are at the far left of the canvas, one in blue, the other in orange). Goya's subversive critique - disguised as a glorifying portrait - of the corruption of Charles IV's reign is further enhanced by the subject of a painting hanging in the background, which shows the Biblical story of the immoral and incestuous Lot and his daughters.

From a technical standpoint, the painting dazzles with detail, especially in the luxurious garments and jewels worn by the family. Goya's brushwork is loose and spontaneous in other areas of the composition. Rembrandt's influence on the artist is apparent in this work, notably in the play of light and shadow and in the overall warm tonality of Goya's palette.

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Francisco Goya Artworks in Focus:

Francisco Goya Overview Continues Below



Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was born in Fuendetodos, Spain, to a lower-middle-class family. The fourth of six children, he spent the majority of his childhood in Zaragoza, a nearby city where his family was originally from. He attended a local public school, where he met his lifelong friend Martin Zapater; their letters provide one of the few direct sources of information about Goya's early years in Madrid.

At age 14, he began his artistic studies under painter Jose Luzan, which lasted for four years. He later moved to Madrid to study under Anton Raphael Mengs, a German artist who worked as court painter for the Spanish royal family. Goya's time with Mengs was largely unsuccessful (it is thought that the two men did not get along well), and his submissions to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando were rejected in both 1763 and 1766.

Early Period

Goya's career first took shape after his relocation to Italy around 1770, though details about his activities there are murky. In 1771 he won second place in a painting competition held in Parma with his Sacrifice to Pan. He returned that year to Saragossa, where he began his studies under Francisco Bayeu, who became a close friend. Goya married Bayeu's sister, Josefa, with whom he had several children, though only one son, Javier, survived to adulthood. Goya once said that his son was so beautiful, people on the street in Madrid would stop to look at him, and he was an intensely proud father. When his son fell ill, Goya wrote that he "stopped living for that whole period."

Around 1774, Goya was commissioned to produce a series of cartoons for the Royal Tapestry factory at Santa Barbara. These paintings depict scenes from contemporary Spanish life in a lighthearted and light-toned Rococo manner; the resulting tapestries were installed in two royal palaces. Goya leveraged this experience to grow his connections within the Spanish court. At the same time he also began to work on a set of etchings after paintings by Velázquez in the royal collection. Goya would become a master of printmaking, which came to serve as the primary means by which he expressed his most personal feelings about the social and political events of his day.

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Francisco Goya Biography Continues

Mature Period

Goya began his career as court painter in 1786, under Charles III. Later, he established himself as a favorite of Charles IV, becoming First Court Painter to the king in 1799, the highest position for an artist in the royal household. He would serve in this capacity until the Napoleonic invasion of 1808, though he continued to gain commissions from the new regime after pledging his allegiance to the Bonapartists.

During the height of his affiliation with the Spanish court, Goya befriended the influential Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy, who commissioned other works from the artist for his private collection, including the notorious Nude Maja (c. 1797-1800). This painting led to widespread speculation about the sitter's true identity, sparking rumors of Godoy's illicit affairs with two separate women and his eventual questioning by the Spanish Inquisition.

Goya's burgeoning career was briefly interrupted in 1792 when an undiagnosed illness left him permanently deaf. Although he continued to work for the Spanish royal family, his handicap led him to distance himself from public life as he grew increasingly embittered and melancholy. It was around this time that Goya began working on Los Caprichos, a series of 80 etchings with aquatint that was published in 1799. The prints present an indictment of many aspects of contemporary Spain.

Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808 and the subsequent Peninsular War (lasting until 1814) gave Goya ample opportunity to observe and critique society. The war inspired his paintings The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808, as well as his portfolio of etchings titled The Disasters of War. In the words of author Evan S. Connell, these works represent "the prodigious flowering of rage" that Goya felt in the face of so much violence and horror.

Later Period

Following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, Goya withdrew completely from public life; little is known about his later years. He moved to a farmhouse on the outskirts of Madrid, La Quinta del Sordo (The House of the Deaf Man), where by 1821 he completed 14 so-called Black Paintings, which were painted directly onto the house's plaster walls. Goya moved to Bordeaux in 1824 to escape the oppressive and autocratic regime of Ferdinand VII. The artist spent the rest of his life in exile in France with his maid and companion, Leocadia Weiss (his wife Josefa had died in 1812), and her daughter until his death in 1828.

Goya Self-Portrait (1815)


Goya's oeuvre represents a unique marriage of tradition and modernity. As an Old Master, he honored the works of his predecessors like Velázquez and Rembrandt, working in a traditional manner as seen in his many court portraits. At the same time, his bold departure from the artistic conventions of his day earns him a place as one of the first Modern Western painters. For instance, his use of social satire finds its legacy in the works of James Ensor, who likewise pilloried the duped masses and corrupt leaders of his day, while the qualities of shock and horror - seen in his more dark or violent works - find a thread in contemporary art's concern for the abject and psychologically disturbed, from Damien Hirst to Paul McCarthy.

Goya's use of broad, visible brushstrokes paved the way for Impressionism's spontaneous style, as did the quintessentially Spanish subject matter of his art. Édouard Manet's Olympia was influenced by Goya's Nude Maja, and was equally bold, if not bolder, in its radical reinvention of the classical nude as a modern-day prostitute. Meanwhile his fragmentary painting of The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, directly references Goya's The Third of May, 1808 in both its expression of moral outrage and its formal composition, though Manet's sympathies lay on the side of the Mexican executioners, not the murdered Emperor.

Goya's politically engaged, highly subjective, and imaginative art presented a significant step towards modernism. In his prints especially, Goya critiqued the events of his day including war, corruption, social ills, and ingrained superstitions. This would later inspire artists like his fellow Spaniard Picasso, whose seminal Guernica also raged against contemporary injustices, in this case the Fascist bombing of a Spanish village in WWII.

Goya's far-reaching legacy extends to Surrealism, as artists looked to Goya's etchings and Black Paintings for their dark and dreamlike subject matter. Salvador Dali created his own version of the Caprichos in 1973, and more recently, in 2014, the contemporary artist Emily Lombardo did likewise, reimagining the Caprichos in the framework of twentieth-first-century life. Both Dali's Surrealist interpretation and Lombardo's queer feminist one signal the enduring, universal, and ultimately malleable significance of Goya's prints. The British twins Jake and Dinos Chapman also looked to Goya for inspiration, most notably in their disturbingly grotesque sculptures derived from The Disasters of War.

Goya Self-Portrait (1783)

Goya Self-Portrait (1795-1797)

Time, Truth, and History

Time, Truth, and History is an oil painting from the early part of Goya’s career that aims to personify the concepts of time, history, and truth into a scene in which they represent an allegorical relationship with each other and the viewer. The piece was not published until 1875 when it appeared in "El grabador al aguafuerte”[1]. Mostly recognized as an oil sketch for a later work, the painting uses a limited range of colours and was mainly used by the artist to experiment with the overall composition. This is proven by its similarity to a better known work by Goya, made about a decade later, that used the same composition in a large-scale allegory relating to Spain’s liberation from Napoleonic rule. In its dramatic subject manner and aesthetic style, it fits within the description of a romantic painting.The oil sketch was initially given by the artist to Juan Carnicero (around 1875) in Madrid, where it was purchased by Ralph W. Curtis for Horatio Greenough Curtis, and ultimately was gifted in his memory by Mrs. Greenough to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it currently resides.

Time, Truth, and History

Francisco Goya y Lucientes

about 1797–99 or 1804

Oil on canvas 41.6 x 32.7 cm (16 3/8 x 12 7/8 in.)





Historical Context


Romantic Style




A restricted color palette is not uncommon to Francisco Goya’s personal artistic style. Along with the significant range in value, the thick brushstrokes and almost entirely black background which emphasize the three figures not painted completely at the edge of the canvas, but rather separated from the viewer by a streak of white that provides contrast from the plain foreground. The wings of time have streaks of white that create visual texture and imply lines, one leading towards the highlights of the upper left clear sky, while the other wing closes off a section of the painting with bats that seem to have an organic form, Goya only defined one of the winged mammals with distinct yellow eyes, the rest provide variety that is parallel with the various objects which surround the feet of history. The work as a whole is asymmetrically balanced, yet there is a considerable sense of unity, considering truth sits precisely at the center while time and history create an implied triangle that reassures the viewer of where to focus their attention.

Historical Context

Francisco Goya y Lucientes is often referred to as the last of the old masters and the first of the moderns. At the time he was working on this painting, he had been assigned the rank of court painter to the Spanish crown. By 1799, he had become Primer Pintor de Càmara, the highest rank attainable for a court painter. In hindsight, this painting is more of an oil sketch for a later work commissioned by Manuel Godoy, the prime minister of spain whom Goya was essentially assigned to paint for. The later version called Truth, Rescued by Time, Witnessed by History (displayed next to this section) has been surrounded by arguments concerning the social and historical commentary by Goya. In spite of some letters and writings that survived, Goya was a very guarded and introverted man, so historians know comparatively very little about his thoughts and various interpretations have been accepted throughout the last three centuries. A leading Goya scholar, Dr Eleanor Sayre, seemed to have proved conclusively that a more appropriate title for the painting would have been Spain Adopting the 1812 Constitution. Considering that the Peninsular War deeply affected Goya’s life in Madrid, as exemplified by other works from his “Disasters of War” series of prints, and exemplified by “The Second of May of 1808”, and “The Third of May of 1808”, which depicted scenes of Spanish citizens rising up against Napoleonic soldiers or just attempting to defend their homeland. The notion that the three subjects could be representative of Spain adopting its first constitution is a widely accepted theory.


Romanticism was at it’s peak during the first half of the 19th century, and with the popularity of the movement there was also an increased emphasis by visual artists on perceiving an individual’s emotional and imaginative interpretations as authentic and valued subject matter, placing new interests on such emotions


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