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

The Forgotten Prints: Images of Famine

One can’t walk down the street without even the most hardened heart softening at the sound and sight of some who complain that they haven’t had breakfast, although it is six in the afternoon; or of others who already have death painted on their faces; of others who faint from need; and others who have expired for the same reason; there one sees a group of children, abandoned by their parents, crying for bread; here, a widow blackened and disfigured; and over there a maiden, assuring that she is begging in order not to compromise her chastity (qtd Tomlinson Goya 196).

This description, published in the newspaper Diario de Madrid on August 27, 1812, becomes a visual reality in the middle section of the Disasters of War.  Commonly referred to as the famine scenes, this section comprises seventeen consecutive prints depicting the famine that ravaged Madrid from September 1811 through August 1812, killing 20,000 people (Klingender 116, Sayre 128).  The famine was caused primarily by Spanish guerrilla bands that terrorized supply routes, making it impossible for average people to afford food.  The occupying French forces were unable to manage the food shortage or bring the roads under control.  Even the well-funded Charity Establishment, founded by the French, could not handle the large number of starving citizens (Hughes 297).

The mastery of composition and range of human suffering in these prints link them visually and thematically to the rest of the Disasters, and in some ways stylistically to the earlier war scenes and the later caprichos enfáticos.  (See Alfredo Rivera’s essay on the caprichos enfáticos).  This linkage is especially true of the social class distinctions and criticisms introduced in the famine scenes that are later central to the caprichos enfáticos.  Despite their importance both as works of great emotional power and as an integral part of the series, the famine prints have been given less academic attention than the prints that surround them.  But the fact that they are rarely reproduced or discussed does not mean that they do not demonstrate many of the same dynamics between creative invention, historical reality, and the roles of reporter, onlooker, and witness that the rest of the prints do.

The famine section begins with Plate 48, Cruel tale of woe!, and ends with Plate 64, Cartloads to the cemetery (Fig. 15).  Within and between these, images of the dead and dying occupy every print; skeletal human frames make it clear that the cause of these deaths is hunger.  The figures in these prints beg for money, are carried away for burial, gather around small portions of food, and perish together in the streets.  In a few of the prints, dead bodies are lined up or piled in heaps.  Though the background structures do not clearly denote the city of Madrid—or any town, for that matter—the images of corpses piled in the streets and the emaciated frames of starving citizens more than likely represent the famine that Goya experienced in Madrid in 1811-12 (Hughes 273, Sayre 127).  However, Goya probably used the sketches he made from life to construct more idealized compositions.  Plate 56, To the cemetery (Fig. 16), and Plate 64, Cartloads to the cemetery (Fig. 15), for example, recall the structural idiom of scenes of the burial of Christ and even the pietá militare, “the dead hero being borne off to burial by his Greek or Roman comrades” (Hughes 299).  Likewise, as Juliet Wilson-Bareau suggests, “the famine scenes, with their dark aquatint backgrounds or framing arches and pillars, evoke Rembrandt’s Peter and John with the lame beggar” (51).  (See Nathaniel Jones’s essay on Christian iconography).

In this way, the famine scenes in particular emphasize the intricacy of Goya’s role as witness/reporter on the one hand and artist on the other.  It is the interplay between what is seen and what is created that allows viewers to perceive these prints as “realistic” yet so dismal that the viewer may find it “unbelievable” that such things happen.  They produce a sense of reality and immediacy for the viewer regardless of whether Goya saw these specific people in these particular positions and these precise groupings.  It is this sense of reality within invention throughout Goya’s artistic career that leads Robert Hughes to claim that Goya “never […] told a pictorial lie” (Hughes 19).  As Wolf writes about printmaker Charles Benazech’s image of the storming of the Bastille, “It was the idea of having been there that mattered” (40).  Likewise, with Goya, it is the sense of reporting the reality of the famine that matters and is integral to the visual impact of his prints.  Indeed the specifics of what Goya “witnessed” and the circumstances of the famine are not as important as the fundamentally human experiences of victims “resign[ed] to death by starvation” (Sayre 128) that the prints show. That reality of human suffering clearly emerges in composition as well as in detailed facial expressions.  Particularly emotional is Plate 50, Unhappy mother! (Fig. 14).  In it, a dead or dying woman is carried away by three men as her small child, isolated from the group of figures by empty dark space that contrasts with the child’s white dress, follows behind with tiny fists held to her or his tear-filled eyes.  Thus, it is the human emotions and experiences that Goya captures that are real and that surface as the primary impact of the famine prints.

Beyond their importance to the ideas of realism and reporting, the famine scenes serve as a transition between the broadly, and largely undifferentiated, classed victims of the war scenes of the Disasters of War and the highly specified classes shown at the end of the series in the caprichos enfáticos.  While several of the famine scenes show well-dressed, well-fed and relatively lively members of the upper class (Plates 51, 53, 54, 55, and 61), Plates 55 and 61 portray conflicting class positions.  In Plate 55, The worst is to beg (Fig. 17), a plump young woman passes a group of gaunt men dressed in rags on her way to meet a French soldier in uniform.  This scene draws attention to the issue of who, exactly, is starving in Madrid.  It is not the occupying French forces, nor is it those who have—possibly through some undesirable means—obtained enough money to keep from starving.  There is also a moral question in this scene of a young Spanish woman going to meet a French soldier.  As art historian Janis Tomlinson suggests in her book Goya, “The caption implies a corollary: is it, in fact, worse to beg, or to sell oneself for survival”? (Goya 197)  Plate 61, Perhaps they are of another breed (Fig. 18), also draws attention to the contrast between the rich and the poor.  In this print, a bony man wearing a simple sort of sheath sits upon a pile of dead bodies, holding out his hand for charity.  Two men in overcoats and large, fine hats, followed by equally well-dressed women, pass by, one of them gesturing to the dead as if he is the one uttering the words in the title, “Perhaps they are of another breed.”  Alternately, the caption could be Goya’s own commentary on those in overcoats and finery who use their class positions to distance themselves from or justify their fellow humans’ suffering.  With this simple scene, Goya manages to convey the intense differences between the wealthy and those who cannot afford to eat.

It is interesting to note, though, that Goya himself was not starving during the famine.  An inventory of his house in 1812 “includes, among other things,” a couch with matching stools, forty-six chairs, “twelve mattresses, beds, armoires, a desk, and even a telescope.  Diamond and gold jewelry […] was also listed” (Tomlinson, Goya 205).  As Tomlinson notes, “All this implies that the family was immune to the hardships of war and the 1811-12 famine of Madrid” (Goya 205).  Goya’s class position has implications for the intricacy of his role as witness and creator; that is, the immunity class offered him allowed him a distance which was like a glass shield through which he could observe and create.

That Goya positions the images of the Madrid famine centrally in his artistic narrative is clear from the thematic and stylistic link these images form between the war scenes and the caprichos enfáticos.  The famine prints occupy the space between realistic depictions of atrocity that were nonetheless created artistically—the war scenes—and absurd depictions of particular conditions and events in Spanish history—the caprichos enfáticos.  They exist in the artistic narrative, then, in the transition between creation of realistic scenes of horror and creation of fantastical representations of suffering and oppression.

—Nicole Bungert


Last Updated: September 2, 2004