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The Life and Paintings of Francisco Goya

Updated on February 26, 2010

Goya's The 3rd of May

One of Goya's most famous paintings
One of Goya's most famous paintings

Francisco Goya - Early Years

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) is regarded as the most important Spanish artist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Over the course of his long career, Goya moved from jolly and lighthearted to deeply pessimistic and searching in his paintings, drawings, etchings, and frescoes. Goya has been referred to as the last of the old masters and the first of the moderns. The majority of his paintings and drawings are renowned for their realistically bold techniques and haunting satire. Goya himself is revered for his affirmation that an artist's vision is vital to the innovation of art. Nobody expressed the ravages of warfare and the extremes of human experience like Goya; it made him the envy of Picasso, who, as a young artist, copied his signature over and over, as though to absorb the personality and abilities of his one supreme influence. And it is perhaps the wildly imaginative freedom of Goya’s late work that has kept him so contemporary.


Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was born on March 30, 1746, in Fuendetodos, a rather poor and arid village near Zaragoza in northern Spain. He was born to Joseph Goya, a gilder by trade, and Gracia Lucientes. The family lived in a house in Fuentetodos bearing the family crest of his mother until they purchased a house in 1749 in Zaragoza. The family later moved to the house in Zaragoza, where Goya’s father worked and where Francisco spent his childhood and adolescence. In Zaragoza, Goya attended the Escuelas Pias de San Antón, a church school that offered free education to children of the poor. Although Goya was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was also not considered to be among the poor despite his attendance at Escuelas Pias de San Antón. His father was a craftsman employed on the decoration of Zaragoza’s grand new basilica to the Virgin, and his mother belonged to the hidalguía, the lowest order of Spain’s proliferating aristocracy. It was at the Escuelas Pias de San Antón that Goya formed a close friendship with Martin Zapater. He remained close to Zapater throughout his life and it was Goya’s correspondence with Zapater that has provided valuable documentary evidence for biographies of Goya. At the age of 14 young Goya began a four year apprenticeship to Jose Luzan, a local painter whose brothers were gilders and were acquiantances of Goya’s father. Luzan, who had trained in Naples, taught Goya to draw, to copy engravings and to paint in oils. Goya recalled simply that, in four years, Luzán taught him the rudiments of design and made him copy the best prints he possessed. By most accounts, Goya’s view on painting was rather down-to-earth. He appeared to have very little interest in the philosophical or theoretical aspects of the art. He did, however, according to legend, have quite an interest in love and bull-fighting – two things any young Spaniard of the time would find intoxicating. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate fact from fantasy regarding his wild escapades with the ladies and the bulls during his younger years.


Shortly after his apprenticeship with Luzan came to an end, Goya left for Madrid. His style was influenced by two painters who were working there at the time; the last of the great Venetian painters—Tiepolo and the rather cold and efficient neo-classical painter—Antonio Raphael Mengs. Once again, however, he clashed with an academic painter and his final examinations were by no means satisfactory. In 1763 and 1766, he competed unsuccessfully for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid. Although he didn’t win, he met the court artist Francisco Bayeu who was to prove influential in forming Goya’s early style. Determined to continue his studies, he went to Rome at his own expense. In April of 1771 he participated in a competition held by the Academy of Parma wherein he introduced himself as a pupil of Francisco Bayeu. At the time, Bayeu was considered a far more promising artist than Goya. By the end of 1771, Goya was back in Zaragoza, where he received his first official commission, the frescoes in the Cathedral of El Pilar, which he completed in intervals over the next ten years. These works, done in the decorative Baroque-Rococo tradition, established Goya's artistic reputation.


In 1773, at the age of twenty-seven,, Goya married Josefa Bayeu, the sister of Fransisco Bayeu. His marriage to “Pepa” (his nickname for Josefa) produced as many as twenty pregnancies with seven live births recorded. Only one of those, Fransisco Javier, survived to adulthood. In turn, Fransisco gave Goya only one grandchild – Mariano. Upon Goya’s death, the bulk of his estate was left to his only child, Fransisco, despite his pronunciation of his son as a “flop of a son, lazy and just short of a wastrel”. After Pepa’s death in 1812, Goya took up with the housekeeper, Leocadia Zorilla de Weiss. History tells us that Leocadia was both beautiful and shrewd. Goya is said to have adored her daughter, Rosario, and purportedly instructed that she be treated as a natural child in his Will. There has been some speculation that Goya was, in fact, Rosario’s father but most experts agree that it is unlikely. Leocadia and her two children lived with Goya until his death in 1828.


In 1774, Goya was summoned to Madrid by Anton Raphael Mengs to paint cartoons for tapestries for the Royal Tapestry Factory of Santa Barbara. Though it is not clear that Goya actually met Mengs during his time in Rome, it is clear that Mengs started Goya on his career at court. Under the direction of Mengs, Bayeu and Mariano Maella, Goya executed over 60 tapestry cartoons (preparatory paintings that depicted contemporary life) between 1775 and 1792. Among the more famous cartoons painted by Goya during this period are The Parasol (1777), Fight at the Cock Inn (1777) and La Cometa (1778).After Tiepolo’s death, Mengs had become the favored artist among the Spanish court. Goya’s earlier cartoons are reflective of Tiepolo’s decorative style coupled with Meng’s simplicity. Goya’s later cartoons reflect his growing independence and individual style. Goya’s style burgeoned as he studied the paintings of the seventeenth century painter Diego Velazquez. Valazquez’s influence can be seen in his understanding and use of nature and realism in his paintings.


Disasters of War

Tambien Estos - War shown in its true form for the first time
Tambien Estos - War shown in its true form for the first time

Fransisco Goys - Paintings



In 1780 Goya was elected a member of the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid. The piece that won him a spot in the Academy was Christ on the Cross. Christ on the Cross was produced in the conventional manner of Mengs but painted in the naturalistic style of Valazquez. During the years 1780-81 he worked on the frescoes of El Pilar in Zaragoza. Upon returning to Madrid, he was invited to paint one of seven large altarpieces for the newly built church of San francisco el Grande. Apparently his work on the altarpiece found favor with the King because in 1785 he was appointed Deputy Director of Painting at the Academy and in 1786 he was made Painter to the King. It was during this time that Goya painted his earliest known portraits of court officials and members of the aristocracy. Among his earliest admirers were the Duke and Duchess of Osuna. Not only was Goya commissioned to paint portraits of the Duke and Duchess, but also a family group portrait and numerous paintings to decorate their country residence near Madrid, the AlamedaPalace – better known as El Capricho. Goya was also commissioned, in 1785, for a series of portraits of offices of the Banco Nacional de San Carlos. It was also during this time that Goya painted the portrait of the Chief Minister of State, the Count of Floridablanca , the family portrait of the Infante Don Luis, the King’s brother and Carlos III as Huntsman. In these portraits, as well as in portraits of society ladies, such as The Marquesa de Pontejos, Goya adopted typical eighteenth century poses reflecting the influence of Valazquez.


The death of Carlos III in 1788, and the outbreak of the French Revolution, brought to an end the period of comparative prosperity and enlightenment in Spain during which Goya had grown as an artist and flourished. Under the rule of the weak Carlos IV and his unscrupulous Queen, María Luisa, Spain fell into political and social corruption, which ended with the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. Unaffected by the politics of the time, Goya reached the height of his career under the new regime as the most fashionable and successful artist in Spain. The new King raised him to the rank of Court Painter in 1789. A somewhat reform-minded monarch, Carlos III, yielded to a weak-minded son, Carlos IV, who hunted his days away while revolution beheaded his cousin in Paris, and who allowed himself, with his court, to be kidnapped by Napoleon. After six long years, during which Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, officially ruled Spain as José I, the Bourbon monarchy was restored by Carlos IV’s ultra-conservative son, Fernando VII. Goya had been discovered by Carlos III and continued to be greatly appreciated by Carlos IV. Though he accepted no salary from José I, el rey intruso, he did accept commissions. He included the King’s profile in his “Allegory of Madrid” and executed a few portraits of the king’s mistress, the king’s secretary of state, and the king’s aide-de-camp and the aide-de-camp’s little son. Goya also served on a commission to select fifty Spanish paintings as a gift to Napoleon, and accepted, in 1811, a royal decoration popularly known as la berenjena, “the eggplant.” Although he did not concern himself much with political opinion, he was nevertheless exposed, after 1814, to charges of collaboration for his work done during the reign of Jose I. All charges against him were eventually dismissed.

From the time of their ascension until 1800, Carlos IV and María Luisa sat for him on many occasions, and many replicas were made of his portraits of them. He painted them in various costumes and poses, ranging from the early decorative portraits in full regalia in the tradition of Mengs to the simpler and more natural compositions in the manner of Velázquez. It was during this time that Goya painted the Duchess of Alba. The relationship between Goya and the Duchess is one of the many great mysteries of Goya’s life. It appears certain that Goya was enraptured by the beautiful young duchess and that, at a bare minimum, they had a meaningful friendship. Given her status and wealth, it seems unlikely that they were lovers – but one cannot always apply logic to affairs of the heart! Whether or not she returned his affections remains a subject of much debate among scholars as does the question of whether or not she posed for the Naked Maja and the more descreet The Clothed Maja. While widely rumored to be the model for both paintings, at least some experts believe that that distinction goes to one of the young mistresses of Manuel de Godoy, a spectacularly pretty and sexy Málagan girl named Pepita Tudo.


During a visit to Andalusia toward the end of 1792, Goya fell terribly ill – the nature of which is still not known for certain - but it caused temporary paralysis and partial blindness and left him permanently deaf. Isolated from others by his deafness, he became increasingly occupied with the fantasies and inventions of his imagination and with critical and satirical observations of mankind. As he was unable to communicate with words, his inner world began to fill with feelings and longings. He wrote himself that the effects of the illness made him, ‘At times rage with so ill a humor that he could not tolerate himself’. As a result, he evolved a bold, free new style close to caricature. During his convalescence he painted a set of cabinet pictures said to represent “national diversions,” which he submitted to the Vice Protector of the Academy with a covering letter in 1794, saying, “I have succeeded in making observations for which there is normally no opportunity in commissioned works, which give no scope for fantasy and invention.” The set was completed by The Madhouse in 1794, a scene that Goya had witnessed in Zaragoza, painted in a broad, sketchy manner, with an effect of exaggerated realism that borders on caricature.


After the death of Francisco Bayeu in 1795, Goya succeeded his former teacher as Director of Painting in the Academy (but resigned for reasons of health two years later), and in 1799 was appointed First Court Painter. As the Royal Painter, Goya was given a salary of 50,000 reales (roughly equivalent to $6,000) and 500 ducats for a coach. . He worked, under Royal Order, on the Cupola of the Hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida, he painted the King and Queen, and painted other royal family portraits such as the Princess de la Paz. He was relatively wealthy, given his chosen profession, and enjoyed the favor of the royal family. Goya, however, was growing unsettled and bitter. In 1799, Goya published the series of 80 etchings called Los Caprichos, bitter caricatures of life that satirized human folly and weakness. Goya attacked political, social, and religious abuses through these caricatures. His work was harsh and populated by pain, suffering and freakish characters. Goya’s masterly use of the recently developed technique of aquatint for tonal effects gives Los caprichos astonishing dramatic vitality and makes them a major achievement in the history of engraving Despite the veiled language of Los Caprichos they were withdrawn from sale after a few days. Later, he was apparently threatened by the Inquisition, and in 1803 he presented the plates of Los Caprichos to the king in return for a pension for his son. His portraits became penetrating characterizations, revealing their subjects as Goya saw them. It is said that he was tyrannical with his subjects, requiring that they stand or sit motionless for long periods of time in order to capture their true essence on canvas. In his religious frescoes he employed a broad, free style and an earthy realism unprecedented in religious art at that time. While Goya made good use of his artistic expression in non-commissioned work, in his commissioned paintings Goya continued to use conventional formulas. His decoration of the church of San Antoniode la Florida, Madrid (1798), is still in the tradition of Tiepolo. In his numerous portraits of friends and officials, a broader technique is combined with a new emphasis on characterization. The faces of his sitters reveal his lively discernment of personality, which is sometimes appreciative, particularly in his portraits of women, such as that of Doña Isabel de Porcel, but which is often far from flattering, as in his royal portraits. In the group of The Family of Carlos IV, Goya, despite his position as court painter, has portrayed the ugliness and vulgarity of the principal figures so vividly as to produce the effect of caricature.


In 1808, when Goya was at the height of his official career, Carlos IV and his son Ferdinand were forced to abdicate in quick succession. Napoleon’s armies entered Spain, and the incursion, which included mass executions of Spanish citizens who rose up in opposition to Napoleon's invasion, culminated with Napoleon’s brother Joseph being placed on the throne. Although repulsed by French atrocities, Goya pledged allegiance to Bonaparte. In 1811, he was awarded the Royal Order of Spain. Goya retained his position as Court Painter, but in the course of the war he portrayed Spanish as well as French generals. In 1812 he painted a portrait of The Duke of Wellington and, soon afterwards, painted one other portrait of his only recorded English sitter. It was, however, in a series of etchings, The Disasters of War (first published 1863), for which he made drawings during the war, that he recorded his reactions to the invasion and to the horrors and disastrous consequences of the war. The violent and tragic events, which he doubtless witnessed, are represented not with documentary realism but in dramatic compositions—in line and aquatint—with brutal details that create a vivid effect of authenticity.


On the restoration of Ferdinand VII in 1814, after the expulsion of the invaders, Goya was pardoned for having served the French king and resumed his office as First Court Painter. The portraits of Ferdinand were Goya’s last royal portraits before he went out of favor and fashion. From then on Goya was chiefly occupied with paintings for private patrons, for friends and for himself. He painted few other official portraits, but those of his friends and relations and his Self-Portraits (1815) are equally subjective. During this period Goya received two important ecclesiastical commissions for St. Justa and St. Rufina, the Agony in the Garden and The Last Communion of St. Joseph of Calasanz (1819), painted in 1819 for the church of the Escuelas Pías de San Antón in Madrid. These works are more suggestive of sincere devotion than any of his earlier church paintings. He continued to record his observations and ideas in drawings. In 1816 he published his etchings on bullfighting, called the Tauromaquia. From 1819 to 1824 Goya lived in seclusion in a house outside Madrid. Free from court restrictions, he adopted an increasingly personal style

But the new king, Ferdinand VII, son of Charles IV, did not share the enlightened views of his predecessor. He revoked the Constitution, reinstated the Inquisition, and declared himself absolute monarch. Not long afterward, he launched a reign of terror. Questioned about his loyalty to the occupiers, Goya demonstrated his allegiance by commemorating Spain's uprising against the French regime in two paintings: The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808 (both Museo del Prado). In the first, Goya depicts a brutal scene in Madrid's city center, the Puerta del Sol, where Spaniards fought against French-led soldiers on horseback. The second work illustrates the execution of captured Spaniards on the Príncipe Pío, a hill just outside Madrid at that time. The paintings exemplify the dark tonalities and fluid brushstrokes representative of Goya's later period, as well as the stylistic influences of Velázquez and Rembrandt. Like The Disasters, they are compositions of dramatic realism, and their monumental scale makes them even more moving. The impressionistic style in which they are painted foreshadowed and influenced later 19th-century French artists, particularly Édouard Manet, who was also inspired by the composition of The 3rd of May. In several portraits of Ferdinand VII, painted after his restoration, Goya evoked the true personality of the cruel tyrant, whose oppressive rule drove most of his friends and eventually Goya himself into exile.

The Black Paintings

Did Goya really paint the Black Paintings?
Did Goya really paint the Black Paintings?

Further Reading

The Black Paintings and Goya's Last Years



The enigmatic “Black Paintings” with which he decorated the walls of his country house, the Quinta del Sordo which Goya purchased in 1819 and Los proverbios or Los Disparates, a series of etchings made at about the same time (though not published until 1864), are, unlike previous works, nightmare visions in expressionist language that seem to reflect cynicism, pessimism, and despair. One of these Black Paintings is the famous work Saturn Devouring His Sons (known informally in some circles as Devoration or Saturn Eats His Child), which displays a Greco-Roman mythological scene of the god Saturn consuming a child, possibly a reference to Spain's ongoing civil conflicts.

The Black Paintings were neither commissioned nor sold, and during Goya's lifetime, no visitor reported seeing them. As a result, it is impossible to date them precisely. They are usually thought to have been created between 1820 and 1823. Recently, however, the authenticity of the famous Black Paintings has come into doubt. In 1823 Goya signed over the deed to his house to his only grandchild, Mariano, for reasons that remain unclear to this day. Goya's purchase contract for the Quinta was not discovered until 1946, but since then it has been closely examined. So has the deed of transfer that Goya made to Mariano in 1823. The bill of sale to Goya describes a residence of two low dwellings, only one-story high. A later account of Goya's renovations, which was made for Mariano's marriage settlement two years after the painter's death, does not mention the addition of another story. The Black Paintings were found on the Quinta's upper and ground floors. If the second story of the house was added after Goya's death, then how could Goya have painted the Black Paintings?

There are just two published sightings of the paintings by contemporaries of Goya. The first is the so-called Brugada inventory, compiled by Goya's friend Antonio de Brugada. In the inventory, which was putatively written in the 1820's but not published until 1928, Brugada listed and recognizably described 15 paintings. These paintings were ostensibly found in the downstairs dining room and the salon above it. Therein lies another problem – we now know that there were only fourteen Black Paintings. Furthermore, experts have concluded that many of the words used in the Brugada inventory were not in use during the time frame in question. The second contemporary record of the Black Paintings is a magazine article published in 1838 by Valentín Carderera, an artist and collector, who recounted that in Goya's country retreat ''there is hardly a wall that is not full of caricatures and works of fantasy, including the walls of the staircase.'' The Carderera account mentions a staircase, however the staircase in the two-story Quinta, as it appeared in the 1850s, was created either by Goya's son Javier or by his grandson Mariano. Carderera speaks of paintings in the staircase, but the notary documents from Goya’s time do not indicate a stairway. More importantly, no mention is made of paintings, much less paintings of the magnitude of the Black Paintings in any of the legal documents that have been found and examined. So why would someone pass these off as the work of Goya? Theories abound, but one popular theory is that Goya’s son, Javier, painted them and passed them off as the work of his father. By all accounts, Javier was not as ambitious nor as talented as his father. Although records exist of Javier claiming to be a painter, he clearly had not achieved the success that his father had at the time of his father’s death. Therefore, one theory is that Javier, or possible even Goya’s grandson Mariano, painted the black paintings in an attempt to make the house, left to him by his father, more valuable.

The Colussus and Other Questions of Authenticity

The giant, fierce figure of The Colossus as he rises above a fleeing crowd of people, carts and animals is one of Francisco de Goya's most dramatic and famous pictures – or at least it used to be! The Colossus was originally attributed to Goya, but is now believed to have been painted by his apprentice Asensio Juliá. Doubts about the picture's authenticity began to surface when restoration work began more than a decade ago in 1992. Restorers discovered then that the quality of the materials used was not up to Goya's normal standards. Slow and insecure brush strokes, dull colors and disproportionate body perspective led experts to further doubt that this was actually the work of Goya. In January 2009, the Museum of Prado presented the conclusions of an investigation of the painting's authorship concluding that while they are not certain who authored the painting, they no longer believe it was Goya. Painted between 1808 and 1812, it is also referred to as The Giant in the inventory of Goya's goods in 1812, the year in which it became the property of his son, Javier Goya. Later it was owned by Pedro Fernández Durán, who passed his collection onto the Museo del Prado, where The Colossus has been kept since 1931. The museum has also expressed doubta over two other paintings that have traditionally been attributed to Goya: Majas on a Balcony and The Milkmaid of Bordeaux.

Last years

As a result of the revolution of 1820 Ferdinand VII was forced to recognize a constitution, but by 1823 the French army had already restored the Spanish king to absolute power, and the persecution of the liberals was renewed with greater violence than ever before. Goya, who had made his last appearance at the Academy on April 4, 1820 to swear allegiance to the Constitution, went into hiding early in 1824. Goya applied for, and was granted permission to go to France for reasons of health. After he was granted amnesty, Goya fled Spain for the relative tranquility of France. Although Goya's political sympathies (what sympathies he had) were with the Liberals, he was treated with generosity by the King and was granted permission to take the waters in Plombières in France for his health. Distrustful of the situation in Spain, the artist took advantage of the leave to join his friends in the thriving Spanish expatriate community in Bordeaux, where he spent the last four years of his life. . Except for two short visits to Madrid in 1826 and 1827, the painter remained in France, mainly in Bordeaux, for the rest of his life. There, in spite of old age and infirmity, he continued to record his impressions of the world around him in paintings, drawings, and the new technique of lithography, which he had begun to use in Spain. His last paintings include genre subjects and several portraits of friends in exile: Don Juan Bautista de Muguiro, Leandro Fernández de Moratín, and Don José Pío de Molina, which show the final development of his style toward a synthesis of form and character in terms of light and shade, without outline or detail and with a minimum of color.


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