In the early 19th century, a series of original murals were found in the former home of the famous Spanish artist Francisco de Goya. The artworks, dubbed Dark (or Black) Paintings, were painted almost entirely with dark and black pigments and portrayed strange and frightening subjects to match. Each strayed far beyond his typical romantic artistic style and explorations of sociopolitical challenges that had earned him a reputation as “the last of the old masters and the first of the modern”.
The unique series was discovered years after Goya’s death, without a title, date, signature or description, leaving art scholars struggling to interpret the grotesque and twisted images for centuries. Although the Dark Paintings have come to be considered some of the most famous works of art of all time, many cannot bear to look at the gruesome images.
Muster your courage to take a closer look at the series and the artist who created them with 10 facts about some of the most haunting works of art ever made: Goya’s Dark Paintings.
Related: 10 Darkest Fairy Tales
10 A successful artist turned recluse
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, better known as Francisco de Goya, was born on March 30, 1746 in a small town called Fuendetodos. He passed away on April 16, 1828, at the age of 82. Starting out as a 14-year-old boy, Goya studied art in Spain and Italy before becoming a public painter in the city of Zaragoza.
Later, Goya began working for the Royal Audience, where he painted figures of the Spanish nobility. He was greatly affected by the hunger, poverty and cruelty he witnessed during the war between France and Spain, which inspired some of his most famous and somewhat controversial paintings. These included some nudes and artwork offering dark critiques of the bloody war in the Peninsula.
Despite his early success, Goya’s life and career took an unfortunate turn in his later years when he became disillusioned with the restoration of the Spanish monarchy under King Ferdinand III. He became almost a total recluse from 1820 to 1823, living in isolation while suffering from ill health and deafness as a result of illness decades earlier. During this time, he created fourteen murals that would later become known as his Dark Paintings.
9 A house with dark walls
Goya created his enigmatic Dark Paintings inside his villa, Quinta del Sordo (translated as House of the Deaf), on the outskirts of Madrid. Surprisingly, the house is not named after him. His previous owner was also deaf. Goya painted each of the murals directly onto the walls of his two-story villa, with some on the ground floor and others on the second (or upper) floor.
Baron Èmiole d’Erlanger, who bought Goya’s house in 1873, removed the murals from the villa and placed them on canvas for display. He later donated the paintings to the state. Unfortunately, the artworks suffered extensive damage in the removal process and required extensive restoration.
Goya’s murals were neither commissioned nor sponsored, leading many to believe they were part of his personal commentary. The exploration of each artwork in different religious and mythological narratives with themes such as death, aging, conflict, and evil seems to support this theory.
8 Two old men (or two monks)
One of Goya’s Dark Paintings, two old (either two monks), depicts a hideous animal-headed figure that seems to be screaming into the ear of a bearded old man. The man is leaning on a shepherd’s crook and has a surprisingly calm meditative expression. It is strikingly similar to a subject in an earlier painting thought to be a self-portrait, leading many to believe it represents Goya himself.
In the painting, the man’s clothing is said to be religious in nature. On the other hand, the wide-mouthed creature bears the hallmarks of how Goya depicted demonic creatures in other works of art, according to respected art critic and writer Robert Hughes. Despite both titles’ suggestion that the two subjects are similar, it’s clear that something unsettling is going on between them. Although what exactly it is is still subject to interpretation.
7 Atropos (The Fates)
atropos (either The destinations) is probably based on the three Moirai from Greek mythology in charge of deciding the fate of all human beings living on Earth: the sisters Atropos, Clotho and Lachesis. As the story goes, Atropos holds the scissors to cut the thread of life and determines how each human dies. Clotho spins the thread and Lachesis measures its length.
Goya’s versions of the Fates seem much harsher and more bewildering than they were usually depicted. Many attribute his monstrous appearance in the artwork to his feelings towards his own cruel fate. The theory seems to be supported by a fourth figure, represented in the center, who looks at the viewer and appears tied with the thread.
This theme is rumored to represent human life as a helpless victim of fate, and ultimately Goya’s feelings of being trapped by ill-health and old age.
6 The dog (or the drowned dog)
Considered “the most beautiful painting in the world” by the artist and writer Antonio Saura, The dog (either the drowned dog), has one of the lightest color palettes of Goya’s Dark Paintings. Only part of the work’s only subject, a small dog’s head, is visible. The rest of his body is hidden behind a large area of color that was not defined.
The dog is placed in front of the negative space and appears as if it is looking towards something or someone beyond the composition. in his book Goya: the origins of the modern temperament in artFred Licht points out how the viewer is left to choose whether the dog sinks into quicksand or whether its body is cut off from the viewer’s perspective by a smaller spike in the foreground.
Symbolism often links dogs to fidelity, a connection that Licht says tempts viewers to interpret the dog’s patient gaze as devotion. The fact that Goya was a known dog lover may add some additional credibility to this theory. Some have concluded that The dog it is a critique of humanity’s hopelessness in the absence of God. Others claim that it represents the inevitability of death. The meaning of this work, more than any of the others in the series, depends largely on the state of mind of the viewer while experiencing it.
5 Witches’ Sabbath (or the Big Billy Goat)
In The witches’ sabbath (either The big billy goat), a large figure of a black-cloaked goat sits in the foreground, bleating something unknown for a Halloween sabbath. The he-goat is believed to represent Satan himself. A small figure in white sits apart from the rest, leading many to regard the scene as the initiation of a new witch into the coven.
Some viewers are surprised to learn that The witches’ sabbath it is not meant to be taken literally. Instead, the sinister supernatural scene serves as “a satirical critique of what Goya saw as the dark and ugly side of the human condition and the depravity of the post-Napoleonic warfare society that surrounded him.” Others say that it is a criticism of the church, whose control gradually increased during the years that Goya lived in the Quinta del Sordo.
4 Two old men eating soup
Two old men eating soupalso know as two witches, The Witcher’s Brewor even two old men eating, is the smallest of the paintings and was the best preserved. He reportedly resided on the ground floor of Goya’s villa.
In the artwork, Goya seated two ghastly-looking figures at a table, eating. The subject on the right appears to have a skull for a head, which has led many viewers to associate the scene with death. Despite his current state of decay, the skeletal figure continues to “eat like crazy, trying to eat as much as he can”. Some scholars believe that the images translate as some kind of joke about greed or gluttony.
“Look at the expressions on the faces in these paintings,” urges Manuela Mena, former deputy director of conservation and research at the Prado Museum, “how each one is a different personality. They are not real, they are caricatures, but they show Goya’s deep interest in the human being, in what we do and why. He was almost like a writer in a way, learning the worst in people and laughing at it in his work.”
3 Saturn devouring one of his children (or Saturn devouring his son)
goya Saturn devouring his son (either Saturn devouring one of his children) depicts the Roman god Saturn cannibalizing his son. Saturn, the god of agriculture, weather, and other traits, was originally the Greek Titan Cronus. According to the myth, Cronos feared a prophecy that he would be overthrown by his own son. So he swallowed each of his children as they were born. His wife, Rhea, managed to save the youngest, Zeus, hiding him on the island of Crete and fed Cronos a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes.
In the artwork, Saturn sits on one knee while tightly gripping the corpse of one of his children with both hands. With his mouth wide open, he prepares to chew on the next part of the boy’s arm. Saturn’s eyes are bulging and wild in his gaze, a detail some have taken to represent “shock at his own monstrosity” of him. Scholars have often wondered if the harrowing scene is a metaphor for “the all-consuming nature of life in all its facets and death in all its blood.”
Other interpretations suggest that Saturn devouring his son it is a possible symbol of the darkness that Goya witnessed and experienced in his life. Jay Scott Morgan’s article “The Mystery of Goya’s Saturn” in the New England Review he attributed the scene to the traumatic loss of his own children.
Goya and his wife, Josefa Bayeu, had eight children, but tragically lost seven in early childhood or to miscarriage. A sketch of a similar scene created in 1797 suggests that Goya was already considering the idea for some years before bringing it to life in Dark Painting.
2 Conflicting theories about the dark paintings
Goya’s dark, mysterious and symbolically charged Paintings have been so studied since their discovery that they almost reach the point of overanalysis. Many believe that the works speak of the artist’s mentality, stating that he was “crazy, melancholic, pessimistic when he made them”. Others maintain that he was an optimist with a great sense of humor and a rational and clear thinker until the end of his life.
Some even claim that the Dark Paintings were not actually painted by Goya, suggesting that they were created by his son, Javier, or his grandson, Mariano, to earn extra money from the sale of the villa. It has also been said that they could be the work of another artist, such as Juan José Junquera or Nigel Glendinning. However, most experts have questioned the possibility that someone else painted the Dark Paintings, stating that “Goya’s hand is there.”
1 Other work and further discussion
Other works in Goya’s Dark Paintings include asmodea (or a fantastic vision), stick fight (either The strangers), Judith and Holofernes, the leocadia, men readinghe Procession of the Holy Officeto Pilgrimage to San Isidroand women laughing.
The series offers a full range of “intense emotional states like heartbreak, loneliness, sadness, and a few smiles and giggles here and there, but even these come across as creepy at times.” The fourteen paintings are on display at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, along with some of the artist’s other works, as part of a permanent collection. The paintings are also available for viewing on the museum’s website. More information about Goya’s Dark Paintings can be found on YouTube, with recommended videos posted by Can Özgar and Blind Dweller.
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