Date of birth
30 March 1746
Place of birth
Fuendetodos, Aragón, Spain
Date of death
16 April 1828
Place of death
Bordeaux, France

The work of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) has often been seen as the product of two conflicting personalities.  According to this view, Goya was a confident, ambitious artist who rose from humble rural origins to become Spain’s official First Court Painter, responsible for the portraits of royalty and nobility and the decoration of royal palaces.  At the same time, however, he was a troubled artist whose doubts, fears and convictions were expressed in the wildly imaginative and private realm of his etchings, drawings and ‘black painting’.[1]

It is because of this second body of work that Goya has often been seen as the first ‘modern’ artist.  The content of his etchings in particular seems remarkably contemporary: the relationship between the sexes; the senselessness and inhumanity of war; the role of women; the value of education; the misconduct of the clergy; and idleness, corruption and complicity among the rich and powerful.   Such themes are all standard fare of newspapers today, and contrast dramatically with the formality of the artist’s royal portraiture.

Yet concentrating on this apparent dichotomy has tended to cloud the interpretation of Goya’s art.  Rather, his work may be seen as a response to a complex variety of social circumstances.  Goya was above all a close observer of his own tumultuous times and just as his paintings portray the prominent political figures of the day so too his etchings articulate the philosophical and political debates of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Francisco Goya y Lucientes was born in Fuendetodos near Saragossa in the Spanish province of Aragon in 1746.  After studying with a respected local artist and an unsuccessful attempt to win a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, he followed the path of many artists of the time by furthering his studies in Rome in 1770. On returning to Spain the following year he received several commissions for church frescoes, and designs for the prestigious Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid.  His career was further buoyed in 1773 when he married Josefa Bayeu, the sister of Francisco Bayeu, a Court Painter and a prestigious member of the Royal Academy.

After several crude attempts at producing etchings of religious scenes, Goya began using etching in 1778 to reproduce paintings by Velazquez from the Spanish royal collection.  This was in accord with the then current conception of printmaking as a means of reproducing works by great masters. It was also the wish of Spain’s King Charles III that the work of Spanish painters should be better known throughout Europe.  Goya used the opportunity not only to master the techniques of etching, but also to develop familiarity with the paintings of a great mentor.

It is not known exactly how Goya initially learnt the methods of etching and engraving or whether he owned his own press.  The Royal Academy had taught printmaking since its establishment in 1752 so there was no shortage of master printmakers in Madrid from whom Goya could have learnt.  A comprehensive handbook on engraving techniques had also been available since its publication in 1761.[2] In stylistic terms, there is no doubt that Goya learnt much from studying the etchings of Rembrandt (1606-1669), G.B. Tiepolo (1696-1770) and G.B. Piranesi (1720-1778) in particular.  

Goya’s etchings after Velazquez and his tapestry cartoons were well received in Madrid and by 1780 he was elected a member of the Royal Academy where, fifteen years later, he rose to become Director of Painting. During this period Goya became friendly with a number of key, liberal intellectuals, among them Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1744-1811), Leonardo Fernandez de Moratin (1760-1828) Cean Bermudez (1749-1829) and Bernardo de Iriarte (1746-1814). Inspired by developments in Europe, these ‘enlightened’ crusaders sought to reform Spain’s education, religion, industry, agriculture and economy.  While Goya’s commitment to Enlightenment ideas has recently been questioned,[3] there is no doubt that such ideas later played an important role in his work. 

Prior to the reigns of the Bourbon kings Ferdinand VI (1746-1759) and Charles III (1759-1788), the Spanish court had only employed artists from France or Italy to decorate its royal palaces. Under Ferdinand VI however, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts was established in Madrid and the court began to employ Spanish artists. At the time Madrid was a small capital and an artist’s only hope of success was to acquire a position at court. Goya achieved this in 1789 when he was nominated as a Court Painter by the newly crowned Charles VI. Goya’s promotion was badly timed however, occurring only three months before the storming of the Bastille in Paris and the subsequent outbreak of hostilities between Spain and France.

The comparatively stable and enlightened regime of Charles III rapidly disintegrated into a period of great political instability under Charles IV. The reign of the new King was dominated by the conspiracies of Queen Maria Luisa and her lover, Manuel Godoy, an ambitious minister who had achieved a rapid rise to power and who was to play an important role in Spanish politics over the next two decades. While Goya’s position as a Court Painter was relatively secure, a number of his ‘enlightened’ supporters and protectors at court fell from grace.

Goya experienced a severe setback in 1792 when he became seriously ill and suffered temporary paralysis, loss of balance, bouts of fevered depression and permanent deafness.[4]  It was whilst he was recovering that he was said to have had a relationship with the Duchess of Alba, who subsequently became the subject of a number of paintings and prints. [5]  Goya’s official status continued to rise, reaching its climax in 1799 when he was appointed First Court Painter. That same year he was to publish his first major etching series, Los Caprichos [The Caprices], one of the most unconventional and imaginative works he ever produced. Teeming with mythical beasts, witches, miserly clergymen, coquettish women and insatiable old men, the series is a complex commentary on the mores of eighteenth-century Spanish society.

Throughout the early years of the nineteenth century, both Manuel Godoy and Ferdinand – Charles IV’s son and heir to the throne – attempted to conspire with Napoleon Bonaparte during his conquest of Europe. In 1808, Napoleon led his troops into northern Spain, deposed the Bourbon dynasty and installed his brother Joseph on the throne. Over the next six years, the Spanish people waged a bloody war against the French invaders, led by well-organised bands of guerrilla fighters and a fierce popular resistance. The savage events of this war were vividly recorded by Goya in his famous painting, The Third of May 1808 (1814) and also in his second major etching series, The Disasters of War (executed 1810-1820).

The end of the war in 1813 was followed by the absolutist regime of Ferdinand VII, who destroyed many of the Enlightenment ideals which Goya’s friends had helped to introduce to Spain, and conducted a reign of terror which lasted for some six years. It is this period which influenced Goya’s final works in the Disasters series and also his last major series, Los Disparates [The Follies] (executed 1816-23). It was at this time also, perhaps as an antidote to all that was happening around him, that he published the bullfighting series of thirty-three etchings known as La Tauromaquia (1816).

After the murder, exile or imprisonment of many of his enlightened friends, Goya was finally driven from Spain by the regime of Ferdinand VII. Isolated and disillusioned, he settled in Bordeaux, where during  the last years of his life he made some of his finest and most unconventional works, including prints in the new medium of lithography. By the time he died in 1828, Goya had lived through some of the seminal events in the birth of modern Europe:  the age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. His life had spanned the turbulent and bloody years of Europe’s transition to the modern age.  Goya had a rare ability to see beyond his own time, and to express concerns which remain deeply relevant today.

‘Introduction’ from Sarah Thomas, Dark Visions: The Etchings of Goya, Adelaide: Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1996, pp. 4–7.

1. The ‘black paintings’ were a bleak and enigmatic series of fourteen oil paintings executed in 1820-23.

2. The author was Don Manuel de Rueda, an expert amateur printmaker. Cited by Juliet Wilson Bareau, Goya’s Prints. The Tomas Harris Collection in the British Museum, London: British Museum, 1981, p. 11.

3. Notably by Janis A Tomlinson in Goya in the Twilight of Enlightenment, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

4. There have been many attempts to diagnose Goya’s illness, with claims ranging from syphilis to lead poisoning. Scholars continue to disagree.

5. Goya’s purported affair with the Duchess of Alba has been the subject of much speculation. For an outline of the arguments, see Pierre Gassier & Juliet Wilson, Goya. The Life and Complete Work of Francisco Goya, New York: Harrison House, 2nd ed., 1981, pp. 114-123.

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