I saw it: The invented Realities of Goya's Disasters of War

Goya: Disasters in Context

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Fig. 1) was born in the small village of Fuendetodos, just south of Saragossa on March 30, 1746. His father, José Francisco de Paula Goya, was a master gilder and his mother, Gracia Lucientes, came from a Hidalgo family, the lowest rank of nobility. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Saragossa where, at the age of fourteen, Goya was apprenticed to the painter Don José Luzan y Martinez.  From him, Goya learned the basics of drawing, engraving and painting but was twice denied entrance to the Spanish Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid. After a period spent traveling and refining his work, Goya was asked to submit fresco plans to the Royal Academy; the Academy accepted the plans and Goya completed them in 1772.

By 1778 Goya had begun to establish himself as an artist in Madrid. Through court painter Anton Raphael Mengs he was allowed access to the Royal Palace, where he had the opportunity to study the work of influential artists such as Diego Velázquez and Giambattista Tiepolo. During this time, he supported his wife and children by creating designs of daily life in Spain for the Madrid tapestry factory and by painting portraits of an ever-widening selection of wealthy patrons from the Court and intelligentsia. Through dedication, hard work, and the help of a few friends, Goya was elected to the Royal Academy of San Fernando in 1780. Shortly thereafter, he was named Painter to King Carlos III. In 1789, Carlos IV appointed Goya to the prestigious position of Court Painter. Highly admired, Goya was the most sought after Spanish artist of his time.

While he enjoyed these professional successes, Goya suffered from poor health. He fell gravely ill in 1792, complaining of buzzing, roaring, and ringing in his head, trouble with his balance, and constant nausea (Hughes 127). This illness left the artist completely deaf for the rest of his life; from then on, he could only communicate to others through writing, sign language, lip reading, and, of course, his art. Deafness thus removed Goya from typical social intercourse and placed him in the role of detached observer, of “witness,” a role that informs the profound expression of pain, agony, and injustice found in two of his major print series. It is from this position as witness and in reaction to political and social events in Spain that Goya undertook Los Caprichos in 1797 and Los Desastres in 1810.

When King Carlos III left his throne to the Prince and Princess of Asturias, Carlos IV and Maria Luisa de Parma, in 1788, he ushered in an era of political instability. Carlos IV knew little of international politics and spent most of his time hunting. This lack of political acumen and interest, combined with the influence of Maria Luisa, led Carlos IV to appoint Emmanuel Godoy (who was reputedly engaged in an affair with Maria Luisa) Prime Minister in 1792. Godoy was disliked and distrusted by the upper nobility, the clergy and the Spanish people. The nobility regarded him as “a scheming upstart whose road to power ran between Maria Luisa’s sheets,” while the clergy detested him not only for his immorality but also “for his desire to curb their wealth and power” (Hughes 239). These internal political machinations coalesced with the broader political instability of the time—France declared war on Spain in 1793 and just two years later Godoy both signed a peace agreement with France and declared war against Great Britain—and formed a tableau vivant of vice, corruption, scandal and upheaval that inspired Goya’s Caprichos. Heavily satirical and often allegorical, Goya’s Caprichos attacked both the church and the aristocracy for their vices—demonic greed and graft. As art historian Janis Tomlinson writes, “More than a series, Los Caprichos offers a kaleidoscopic view of evil, encompassing prostitutes, clergy, imagined witches and goblins. Never before had any artist presented such a complex group of images, which effortlessly slip from the mundane to the supernatural” (Goya 123). A decade or so later, Goya would incorporate similar themes and creatures in his print series the Disasters of War, devoting sixteen of the eighty prints to the caprichos enfáticos.

1808 was a critical year in Spanish politics; the crown passed several times as Carlos IV abdicated to his son Fernando VII in order to save his Prime Minister, Godoy, who was accused of being a French sympathizer. After Carlos IV received the crown back from Fernando, who was forced to return it by the circumstances of the French holding the Spanish royal family captive, Carlos abdicated once more, this time to Napoleon who placed his own brother, José (Joseph Bonaparte), on the throne. When the French invaded Spain, the Spanish people revolted. Thus began the Peninsular War, which stretched on for six years, until 1814. These were six years of chaos and savagery; as France and Spain (aided by ordinary Spaniards turned guerilla fighters) fought for control of the countryside, women were raped, children were murdered, and men were brutally tortured. For nearly a year (1811-12), famine devastated Madrid, taking nearly 20,000 lives—indeed, dead bodies were a common sight along the road. Once again witness to the upheaval of his country, Goya began in 1810 to construct a visual testimony of the war horrors surrounding him. With unhesitating hand and confrontational gaze, Goya sought to convey the harsh realities of war and starvation, to depict the atrocities committed by both French and Spanish, for he realized, perhaps better than many of his compatriots, that very little separated the two camps. As art historian Lorenz Eitner points out, “The treatment of war as misery rather than glory, and its presentation from the victim’s point of view is rare in art before Goya” (Eitner 67). With the Disasters, then, Goya took his status as observer to social realities to a new political and ethical level: he bore witness.

The political situation in Spain continued to seesaw back and forth after the end of the Peninsular War when Fernando VII was once again placed on the throne. Fernando VII soon reinstated the institutions of the old monarchy. “The years that followed brought total disillusionment to those who had fought against the French. The Constitution of 1812 was abolished, the Jesuits were recalled, the clergy readmitted to power. The civil administration sank into chaos; despotic ministers ruled without check” (Eitner 69). In 1814, Fernando VII also reinstated the Spanish Inquisition, under which, had it been published and publicly available, Goya’s Disasters could have been severely prosecuted. In fact, they were not published until thirty-five years after Goya’s death in 1828, escaping the wrath of the Inquisition but also failing in their anonymity to provide a public voice to the devastation, fear, deceit  and despair Goya had seen. “And so it came about that the greatest anti-war manifesto in the history of art, this vast and laborious act of public contrition for the barbarity of its author’s own species, remained unknown and had no effect whatsoever on European consciousness for two generations after it was published” (Hughes 304). When the Disasters were prepared for printing in 1863, the publisher, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, changed Goya’s title for the series, Fatales consequencias de la sangrieta Guerra en Espana con Buonaparte. Y otros caprichos enfáticos (Fatal consequences of the bloody war in Spain with Bonaparte.  And other emphatic caprices) to the now familiar Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War).  Eighty prints were bound together in albums and sold to the public.

Although Goya did not live to see the publication of the Disasters, the themes of despair and desperation about the human condition from the series continued to inform his late work. When he took his leave of Fernando’s court in 1819, Goya purchased a two-story home outside of Madrid, ironically called Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man), for its previous and likewise deaf owner. Late in his life, Goya again became very ill; during his recovery, he began painting the walls in this house with the murals that would become known as the “Black Paintings.”  Subjects included the Witches’ Sabbath, Saturn Eating One of His Children, Judith Slaying Holofernes, and Dog Buried in Sand. As the subjects suggest, the murals depict gruesome events. Themes apparent in Goya’s earlier works, from the tapestry cartoons to the visions of war, recur in a terrifying manner.  These murals can perhaps be seen as Goya’s final phase of witnessing, for himself and to himself.  Whether etching eighty plates or painting the walls of his home, Goya shows that he did not, and could not, exorcize war, chaos and human barbarity from his artistic vision.  

—Tala Orngard


Last Updated: September 2, 2004