The Junction of Francisco Goya’s Art and His Political Development

Goya's art as a visual manifestation of his political views

Posted by Nicholas Vizzi on June 21, 2021

Francisco Goya. Although this name may not be familiar to the average person, numerous of his paintings are likely to be recognized by any individual who has even a passing awareness of art history. Goya is acclaimed as one of the most influential and important artists due to his influence on a variety of painters throughout the 19th and 20th centuries including Picasso, Manet, Degas, etc. While Goya’s art alone is experienced as visually pleasurable or “good” to most people who see it, an interesting aspect of influence on Goya’s work is introduced when discussing the socio-political climate in which Goya came to develop his art. Coming of age during a period of massive philosophical growth and development, Goya would go on to provide a sharp, caricaturistic exemplification of the contradictions which plagued Spanish society from the late 18th to the early 19th century. Along with this clear rapport between Goya’s political beliefs and art, a significant development in his faith in and hope for authentic political change is equally as clear. The stylistic and tonal shifts within Goya’s work reveals the development of a seemingly hopeful, pro-Enlightenment liberal Spaniard into a politically faithless, decrepit husk of his former self. The result could be perceived as politically resentful or hopeless; this development can ostensibly be attributed to the continual failure of Enlightenment ideals to gain socially and politically significant traction during Goya’s lifetime

Goya’s political beliefs can be revealed through various circumstances. For example, according to various sources, Goya was adamantly against various dogmatic practices of the church. Particularly, Goya took issue with the behavior of the Spanish Inquisition and the church's complicity . Along with this, Goya seemed to hold a militancy which favored working people. He was noted to have opposed exploitation of farm workers and tradesmen, likely in adherence to newly circulated Enlightenment values like individual rights. In continual support of said ideas, or rather the incremental addition of them into Spanish society, Goya and many other politically hopeful people supported the rule of King Charles III. In 1789, Goya became a painter for Charles III. Charles, despite growing his absolute rule by centralizing more power into the crown, was very popular amongst the populace. This popularity could be attributed to the comparative prosperity and continual implementation of Enlightenment ideals into policy passed under his kingship. Although he tightened control over local governments, Charles III would lead Spain into a massive economic and cultural revival by dropping commercial restrictions on trade and opening up ports and commerce to all subjects within the Spanish kingdom, a decision which helped to notably grow the Spanish economy. During this period of time, many proponents of Enlightenment thoughts, such as Goya, felt extremely emboldened. The ideals which they had been hoping for seemed to be finally coming into fruition. Charles III’s rule, for many of these individuals, looked like the first step in the direction to the materialization of Enlightenment concepts in Spanish reality. However, this sentiment would quickly be squashed with the death of Charles III as well as the performance of his successor.

As referenced prior, the death of Charles III would lead Spain down a comparatively regressive path. Charles IV, Charles III’s successor, ostensibly pushed Goya’s down this continual path of disillusionment as exemplified through his art during this period, art which conveyed a strong and rationalizing view of Spanish society. Under the rule of Charles IV, Goya became one of the most recognized painters within Spain, being granted the position of first court painter in 1799. Goya’s work of the time, despite his position, offered a stark, rational, and piercingly critical portrayal of the royalty which had presided over continual social and political regression. A clear example can be seen through Goya’s piece titled Charles IV of Spain and His Family, painted in 1800. This painting is often referenced when discussing the political frustration Goya felt during Charles IV’s rule in Spain. In addition to the political regression overseen by the figure, Charles’ family was accused of incestuous and adulterous action during Charles’ reign. The context given to this painting, including Goya’s clear anger towards the regression away from policy informed by Enlightenment thought, has led many to believe that the painting was a satirical depiction of the family. The awkward arrangement of individual canvas along with Goya’s glaring depiction of himself in the corner of the painting could possibly indicate the satirical nature of it. Goya’s awkward depiction in Charles IV and His Family seems purposeful when other work of his from this period is viewed. This awkwardness brings up a questioning of what the motive of the stylistic decision was, as it was not a clear thematic or stylistic continuity within his art during the time. However, it should be noted that there is a significant uncertainty surrounding this interpretation of the piece. As art critic Robert Hughes pointed out, “[y]ou didn’t manage to keep your job as an official court portraitist if you were satirising the people you were painting.”

Another prominent example of Goya’s growing political disillusionment can be seen through his works titled The Madhouse and Los Caprichos. The Madhouse denotes a specific change in the kind of artwork Goya was producing, a notion of the beginning of his discontent with the continual lack of political development and stagnancy within Spain.The Madhouse specifically identifies a distaste for the treatment of individuals within mental asylums. This was inspired by Goya’s visit to the Zaragoza mental asylum. This main shift in Goya’s style is somewhat of a form of exaggerated realism, almost caricature. Los Caprichos helps to further emphasize the upset Goya felt in reference to the socio-political state of Spain during this point of his life. Within the collection of eighty etchings, Goya attacked various religious and political abuses he identified through his piercingly critical view of the world. Goya created a dramatic and fantastical depiction of what he called the “extravagances and folies common to all society.” Funnily enough, many of the etchings were such clear references to well known figures within his society that they had to be withdrawn from sale shortly after their release.

In 1808, Charles IV was forced to abdicate the throne as Napoleon's army entered Spain. Napoleon’s brother became the new king. Goya’s reaction to the political destruction of the period can be seen through the series of etchings known as The Disasters of War. These etching made it clear that the tonal shift in Goya’s work exemplified through Los Caprichos and The Madhouse were not some tangential or momentary shift in his work. The fervently discontented and almost satirical nature Goya had developed prior is nowhere to be found in these desolate works. The set of etching Goya composed during this period of bloodshed and unrest illustrate an extremely bleak, realistic, and brutal portrayal of the French invasion of Spain. Goya’s dismay continued into the rule of Ferdinand VII, the son of Charles the IV who was placed into power in 1814. This dismay was made clear by Goya’s unscrupulous depiction of Ferdinand as the cruel and despicable tyrant which he was. During his reign, Ferdinand drove many of Goya’s friends out of the country and into exile. Goya’s recognition of the absurd reality of a society which once seemed like it was moving towards the Enlightenment goals popularized earlier in his life drove him to willingly enter exile in 1824.

Goya’s austere and critical eye continued as his exile from Spain began. It was during this time period that Goya created art which would go on to be extremely acclaimed despite the fact that he may have never intended the public to see. Goya, during this latter period of his life, would paint murals throughout the house which he was confined to as his health continued to falter. Said paintings would eventually become known colloquially as the “black paintings.” Although the desolate and bleak nature of these paintings was likely influenced by Goya’s continually decreasing quality of health, it is fair to assume that his life-long political disillusionment played a role in the creation of these various paintings. In Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, he gruesomely depicts the titan named Kronos eating one of his children. The scene depicted is immensely gruesome. The original story tells of how this titan would eat his children out of fear of them overthrowing him. However, Goya’s depiction is considerably more gruesome and visually obscured than any prior depiction. While the meaning of said painting is up to interpretation, it exemplifies this deeply enigmatic yet dreary nature of Goya’s art as he neared death. Similarly, paintings scavenged after his death like A Pilgrimage to San Isidro and Witches’ Sabbath continue this theme, helping to cement the clear disillusioned, dreary, and hopelessness of Goya perceived through the art he created towards the end of his life.

Throughout his life, Francisco Goya was a strong proponent of pro-Enlightenment, philosophically liberal ideals, and he’d spend his life hoping for the ushering in of said ideas into Spanish society. Despite this, he was met with staunch political inauthenticity and very little palpable change. The tonal and stylistic shifts of Goya’s artwork throughout his life help to create a timeline of a continually dwindling hope and political disillusionment