Painting in Spain in the 18th Century: Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)

Even art lovers might have trouble in identifying any Spanish artists of the 18th century. The general lack of artistic talent is not limited to painting; in literature and sculpture, too, it is difficult to find any names that resonate. The one notable exception to all this is Francisco de Goya.

The 18th century was, overall, a period of political embarrassment for Spain when its interests were subordinated to the dynastic and political intrigues of other European nations. The century began with foreign troops on its soil, the surrender of most of its European possessions, and the mortifying loss of Gibraltar.  It ended with Napoleon’s soldiers occupying the land.   

The 18th century also saw a foreign prince succeed to the Spanish throne. When the impotent Charles II, the last of the Spanish Hapsburg dynasty, died in 1700, he bequeathed the throne to the young French prince, Philip of Anjou.  Under the new Bourbon dynasty, Spanish culture was heavily influenced by French and Italian taste, and many foreign painters were invited to the court at the expense of native artists.

An Academy of Arts (Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando) was founded in 1752, with the aim of improving the standard of Spanish artists and architects. French and Italian artists were the models and mythological or biblical themes the preferred subject matter. Spanish traditions were largely shunned. 

It so happens that Goya was amongst those who competed for a place in the Academy.  He was turned down, first in 1763 and again in 1766, without receiving a single vote from the judges.  His temperament rebelled against the neoclassical formality imposed by the Academy.

Goya was finally elected a member of the Academy in 1780.  By this time he had visited Italy and had managed subsequently to combine some of the demands of classical decorum with his own originality. We can see this in the figures and cartoons he drew for the Tapestry Factory in Madrid from 1775.  Subjects were frequently arranged in groups in the form of a pyramid according to neoclassical principles, but the topics and figures were mostly from every day Spanish life.


                         La Cometa: The Kite.

From 1780 on, Goya moved up in the world.  In 1783, he received a commission to paint the Count of Floridablanca, the Prime Minister of Spain. This was followed by portraits of members of the royal family, including one of King Charles III in 1786. In 1789, he was appointed court painter by the newly crowned Charles IV. Ten years later he was named first court painter.

In 1792, while on a trip to Andalusia, Goya suffered a mysterious illness which left him totally deaf for the rest of his life.  It did not, however, interfere with his amazing output, and probably played an important role in giving freer rein to his imagination. He continued painting portraits but at the same time developed an increasing interest in graphic work (etchings), the first series of which,  (Los Caprichos: Caprices or Whims) were published in 1799.  These prints portray a much more personal vision of contemporary society with all its foibles, prejudices and injustices. These disquieting visions were to remain part of his artistic world for the rest of his life, intensifying if anything in their nightmarish quality as he grew older.

 Goya’s work was vast and embraced all levels of Spanish society, from the underworld of witches and prostitutes to the salons of the nobility and royal court. He painted “majos” and “majas” (the contemporary fashion setters of the street), saints and sinners. The Inquisition, the church, bullfighting, war, Spanish customs, human foibles and superstitions, all came under his critical eye.


             El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

Goya does not flatter; if anything he “demythifies”.  Royalty and nobility are painted as they are, warts and all. War is not heroic but savage and unfeeling. Goya tears away the façade of society and reveals the darker side of human nature.  In the Age of Enlightenment (as the 18th century is frequently called), Goya plunges into our inner being, our unconscious, and exposes a frighteningly irrational and bestial world, sometimes with brutal frankness, sometimes with ironic humour. One of his best known prints from Los Caprichos bears the words “El sueño de la razón produce monstrous” (“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”).  Beneath the print, a caption clarifies: “La fantasía abandonada de la razón, produce monstrous imposibles: unida con ella, es madre de las artes y origen de sus maravillas” (“Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of their wonders”).

 Goya has frequently been called the first modern artist. He breaks with the conventions and rules of Neoclassicism, and anticipates Romanticism in his use of local colour and self expression.  Although he advocates reason, he paints with emotion. Even his paintings of royalty convey a personal attitude rather than the regal presence that decorum would normally demand.

Spain and Spaniards may be Goya’s subject matter, but their portrayal tells a lot about Goya himself, his views on society, its customs and institutions. He was in his way a psychologist, analyzing both himself and the human condition. He has something to say to all of us.