What Were They Thinking!? - Goya's Black Paintings

What Were They Thinking!? - Goya's Black Paintings

In this series, we examine works of art and concepts that might puzzle or confuse at first sight. You know the ones we're talking about. The work you look at and say to yourself, "what were they thinking!?" 

When you go to the Prado in Madrid and descend to the lower levels of the building you'll find a spacious oval room tucked away in a corner. The room is filled with some of Francisco Goya's most infamous art - the Black Paintings. Originally called this because of the dark pigments used and the dominance of black, the title also fittingly describes the bleak subject matter. One of these paintings is what we're examining today - Saturn Devouring His Son, 1820-1823. 

Prequel to the Black Paintings 

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was, in his day, the most famous painter in Spain. He served as painter to the royal family, King Carlos III then Charles IV then Joseph Bonaparte. However, he also lived through periods of political and social unrest. He witnessed the rise of the Enlightenment, Napoleon's invasion of Spain, and the Inquisition under Ferdinand VII. In 1792 he contracted an illness that left him deaf; which resulted in the artist becoming even more introspective. He pushed boundaries with his subject matter and style, using his art to communicate his dissatisfaction with the political climate. Between 1820-1823, he retired to his small country retreat, Quinta del Sordo (the Deaf Man’s House).

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The Writing's on the Walls 

It was during Goya's stay at Quinta del Sordo that he created the Black Paintings, a series of 14 intense and haunting images. He took chalk and oil paint directly to the walls of his dining room, both upper and lower levels. The private and intimate character of that house allowed the artist to express himself with great liberty. 

The image shows Saturn, the god of time, devouring one of his sons (obviously). A prophecy had foretold that one his son's would dethrone him. In order to stop this from happening, Saturn would consume each of his children as soon as they were born. As happens in mythology, one child Jupiter escapes with the help of his mother the goddess Ops. By trying to reverse his fate Saturn causes the exact outcome he had feared. Jupiter defeats him and in the process frees all of his siblings trapped inside of Saturn (I know, but it's mythology). 

Goya's image depicts a haunted figure manically fighting a losing battle. Saturn is not depicted as a beautiful idealized god, but as haggard longhaired and hunched over. The painterly technique and wild gestures he uses adds to the nightmares quality of the painting. Unlike other depiction of this scene, Goya chose to portray the child's body as a fully grown adult and already disemboweled. The painting could also be Goya's commentary on the Spanish monarchy's treatment of its citizens in their desperate attempt to hold on to power. 

A Questionable Legacy

A heated debate has become the focus of the Black Paintings over the last ten years. In his research for a book on said paintings, historian Juan Jose Junquera found questionable archives that date construction on Quinta del Sordo after Goya's death. Junquera argues that the second floor of the dining room (and the location of half the Black Paintings) was added on after Goya's death. Which means Goya did not paint them. He argues that Goya's son Javier painted them and that his grandson Mariano, seeing a great business opportunity, sold the paintings as works by his famous grandfather. His argument is questionable, and the top two Goya scholars Bozal and Glendinning reject the hypothesis. Their view is - the Black paintings were done by Goya.

In the canon of art history, it is harder to reattribute artwork to an artist than it is to take it away. Once you question the authenticity of artwork the allure vanishes, the sincerity is gone. This is why historians and the Prado are hesitant to cut Goya's tie with the Black Paintings. It's going to take a lot more concrete evidence before anything changes. But don't worry - Manuela Mena, the senior curator of 18th-century painting at the Prado, had this to say, "We cannot send The Dog [considered one of modern art's masterpieces and also from the Black Paintings] to the museum basement because it was on the apparently non-existing second floor of the Quinta."

Francisco Goya, The Dog (El perro), 1819-1823. Widely considered one of the best paintings in modern art. 


Articles Mentioned

Goya and the Spanish Enlightenment - the MET

Saturn Devouring His Son (video) - Khan Academy 

Saturn Devouring His Son - Prado Collection 

The Secret of the Black Paintings - The New York Times Magazine 

Abstract Art Isn't Scary

Abstract Art Isn't Scary

PhD | part 2 | Interviews and Acceptance

PhD | part 2 | Interviews and Acceptance