The Black Paintings

Excerpted from the book GOYA by Xavier de Salas
Published 1978 by Mayflower Books, New York City.
Copyright © 1978 Arnoldo Mondadori

SalasBrief Bio of Xavier de Salas (from the book dust jacket):

Francisco-Xavier de Salas Bosch studied in the Universities of Barcelona and Madrid, graduating in History. From 1947 to 1961 he organized and directed the Spanish institute in London. He was Vice-Director of the Prado Museum from 1962 to 1969 and Director of the same from 1970 until March 1978. He is a member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid and also an honorary member of the Royal Academy in London. From 1971 he was President of the Spanish branch of the international Council of Museums, and from 1973 of CIHA (Congresos Internacional de Historia del Arte). He has lectured in the history of art in’ the Universities of Barcelona and Madrid. In his capacity as coordinator and organizer, he has been responsible for setting up a large number of reviews and international exhibitions. He has also written more than 180 books and numerous articles on art history, of which more than twenty-five have been on the subject of Goya.

It is my belief that the anxiety and danger in which Goya lived during the years prior to 1820, and also in the years following the restoration of the King’s absolute power, were the reasons for his not having published them [referring to the etchings of Disparates], and that, in order to protect himself from any possible danger that might result from their interpretation, he only kept a series of proofs, to which he gave these vague titles, under the general heading of Disparates, so as to render them completely innocuous. They thereby became totally devoid of comment or criticism—mere ‘disparates’—even though initial purpose may have been to criticize actual deeds or events. Their meaning would only be apparent to those who knew his own hidden thoughts and opinions concerning the political situation of the time. The same spirit lay behind them as lay behind the paintings on the walls of the two rooms in his Quinta property: the ‘black paintings’, so called because of the dominance of that colour.

La Quinta de Goya House
La Quinta de Goya - House in which Goya painted onto the
walls the 'Black Paintings'. The structure on the left is the
original building in which Goya lived.
This property, from the bill of sale dated 27 February 1819, consisted of some ten hectares of cultivated ground and a small house, situated on the far side of the Manzanares, with extensive views over the city. The house was enlarged by Goya, and he himself decorated two rooms in this extension, one on each of its two floors. One was intended to be used as a reception room, and the other as a dining room. He painted them in a way that was unusual by any standards, since, from a technical point of view, it is extremely rare for oil paints to be applied directly to plain whitewashed walls. It is also a technique that renders the paint highly susceptible to deterioration.

The fourteen paintings that comprise the two groups were completed after his serious illness in 1820. The mysterious quality of the different scenes depicted and the fact that their meaning is so hard to interpret, does not mean that they developed piecemeal as work progressed, with no previous overall plan. In the inventory drawn up by Brugada after Goya’s death, mention is made of seven small preparatory sketches, which shows that he prepared this decorative scheme with the same care that he gave all his other works. In fact, a number of small sketches have recently come to light that may well have been done by Goya, and it is possible that they are the same ones that Brugada came across while preparing his inventory.

Personally, I am unconvinced by the various attempts to explain the two groups of paintings in terms of their philosophical and symbolic meaning, but there does undoubtedly exist a relationship between the different compositions, and in order to interpret them—to read them—we must examine precisely the way in which they relate physically one to another, both side by side and face to face. It also seems certain that the underlying feeling which Goya gave the paintings was linked to his relationship with Leocadia Weiss, a young and beautiful woman, who was living with him at the time, as well as to a conscious awareness of his old age, the inevitability of death and a general disillusionment with life and his fellow men. Ail these elements combined to make him paint these great, nightmarish compositions. Their colouring is not ‘black’: there are other shades and tones, which combine to produce an overpowering feeling of gloom, nowadays further accentuated by the condition of the paintings. ‘Black’, however, would certainly describe Goya’s mental state as revealed by the pictures, which can only be described as reflections of deep-seated pessimism. We have no alternative but to interpret them by using the titles given them by his family, which we know through Brugada’s inventory and a later description of the pictures by Yriarte. Both of these sources agree with each other on all the main points and they confirm that the traditional titles were still being used by the family in 1867.

Goya Del Sordo House Floor PlanIn the room on the ground floor, on each side of the main door, the inventories state that there were two portraits, of the master and mistress of the house, with, on the left hand side, la Leocadia — this was the name by which Leocadia Weiss, the woman who lived with Goya, was commonly known - leaning against a mound surmounted by a low railing, which must be interpreted as belonging to a grave. it is also possible that the pose was derived from an engraving by Ribera, known as The Poet. On the right are the Two Old Men, one of whom, a symbolic portrayal of the artist, is shown as an old man with a long beard, like the one depicted in the drawing entitled 'I am still learning'; to his right, a spirit or demon is shouting into his ear. In order to understand this image, we should remember Goya’s deafness: it is because of this that the demon of his inspiration has to shout at him. We can only guess at the significance of the grave next to Leocadia; perhaps Goya is showing her waiting for the death of her husband, without which she could never legally marry the artist, or perhaps she is awaiting his own death, thereby giving the whole thing the significance of a descente aux enfers.

What is certain is that on the walls opposite the door into the room, on each side of the window, we again encounter the two protagonists, hidden behind the cloak of their symbolic representation: Leocadia appears as Judith, an obvious allusion to the latter’s victory over Holofernes by virtue of beauty and treachery, while Goya appears as Saturn eating one of his children. Saturn symbolizes melancholy and the passing hours devoured by him. It has recently been suggested on the basis of early photographs that Saturn appeared with his member erect, a representation which would give a clear picture of the reasons for the liaison with Leocadia: a picture completed by the portrait of Judith and Holofernes. If that was indeed the case, then Goya’s relationship with Leocadia through those long, lonely years,could be explained by a combination of his desire for her and a terror of becoming her victim, as Holofernes had become the victim of Judith.

Next to Leocadia, on the main wall, was a portrayal of The Witches’ Sabbath, in which the Devil appears as a horned goat, surrounded by his female disciples, all of them hags, except for the enigmatic figure of a young woman, almost a child, who bears no relation to the bestial conclave in which she finds herself. The significance of this figure in the composition, however, remains a mystery.

On the opposite side of the room was the Pilgrimage of St. Isidore, in which groups of people and couples wander through an arid landscape in the far distance, while in the foreground a group of young figures are singing at the top of their voices. If one compares this scene with that of the Meadow of St. Isidore, painted in 1788, the extent of Goya's profound spiritual transformation becomes immediately apparent. The latter exudes all the joie de vivre of a spring evening, with the buildings of Madrid bathed in a pink and white light in the distance, and the majos and majas picnicking and chatting on the grass. In Quinta del Sordo, in the painting that both inventories describe as Pilgrimage of St. Isidore, the countryside is scorched and the men wander aimlessly through it. The joie de vivre has become melancholy, with an element of violent anguish in the expressions of the frenzied singers in the foreground. Between la leocadia and the counterpart portrait of Goya, above the door, was the painting of Two Old Men Eating, probably an illusion to the door’s function: it may well have been the one through which dishes from the kitchen were brought in.

In order to visualize the appearance of either room, we must bear in mind what Yriarte wrote, and also what the paintings themselves tell us. The rooms were of ‘very modest dimensions’, which would have made the figures in the paintings seem larger: certainly larger than they now appear in the museum in which they are housed. This would also have made them appear even more overpowering. It should be remembered, too, that, according to the inventories, the furniture was upholstered in yellow, which would have further emphasized the gloominess of the paintings, as would the matching yellow curtains that in all probability framed the doors and windows.

In the case of the first floor room, we have not been able to establish such clear links between the different compositions, but undoubtedly the overall theme was that of death, and, as has already been said, the significance of each painting would have been enhanced by its physical relationship to others in the group. To the left of the door was Atropos or The Fates, a picture that still remains an enigma: there are, as is well known, only three Fates, but what, then, is the identity of the fourth figure, whose wrists appear to be bound? The next scene, on the other side of the door or window, was the one called The Strangers or Cowherds in the inventories, which is commonly known as The Fight with Cudgels. It shows two men fighting with cudgels, locked in mortal combat and imprisoned up to their knees in mud or sand. In painting this composition, Goya was recalling Saavedro Fajardo’s 75th allegory or 'emblem', Bellum colligrit qui discordias seminat, which, according to the author’s interpretation, means: 'Medea sows [in order to prepare for the theft of the Golden Fleece ] ... / ... the teeth of serpents ... and squadrons of armed men spring forth, who, fighting amongst each other, are destroyed...'. The engraving of the scene shows a fight between men who seem to be buried up to their waists or half submerged in water. Saavedra went on to clarify his allegory by explaining how some Princes stir up discord, and thereby find themselves faced by wars and unrest within their countries. By fermenting disharmony, they think they will be able to enjoy peace and quiet, but things turn out quite contrary to their designs. At the time that Goya was recalling this allegory, it could well have been applied to the policies of Ferdinand Vll and to Spanish politics in general.

Opposite the wall of the entrance door, on both sides of the door or window, were the compositions of Two Men, as it is called in Brugada’s inventory, or The Politicians, as Yriarte describes it, and Two Women (Brugada) or, alternatively, Two Women laughing their heads off (Yriarte). The latter painting, which shows two women laughing at a man indulging in the vice of Onan, would seem to hold the key to the meaning of both works. The incessant talk of the politicians, one of whom is reading a newspaper that they seem to be passing comment on amongst themselves, was perhaps, in Goya’s eyes, as sterile as the solitary pleasure which the women are making fun of.

On the wall to the right of the entrance.door, which must have been divided by a door or window, were the Pilgrimage to the Fountain of St. Isidore and Asmodea. ‘Asmodea’ is spelled with the feminine ‘a’ ending, rather than as ‘Asmodeus’, the conventional spelling for the evil slayer of husbands, but we do not know the reason for this change of gender; nor do we know why she is shown flying over groups of warring soldiers or what significance there is in the mountain that dominates the scene in the background. In the case of the Pilgrimage (also known as the Holy Office), however, with its figures in 17th century dress, we can assume that there is a connection with the steps taken by Ferdinand Vll to revive the inquisition soon after his restoration to the throne. This was an anti-liberal measure, which Goya seems to have classified as anachronistic by the old-fashioned dress he gave the black-clad man on the right, with his large collar, like the ones worn during the 16th and 17th centuries. There is also an implicit criticism in the grotesque way that he has portrayed the monks in the procession.

Finally, next to the door was the most enigmatic of all the paintings: The Dog, whose significance Yriarte clarified by defining it as A Dog fighting against the Current. Perhaps this is how Goya saw his own situation: as a dog who was barely able to keep his head above the water or the sand, a personification of the proverbial ‘swimming against the current’. We have already stated on several occasions that these murals in La Quinta were conceived in the same spirit as the Proverbs. There are also a number of other, small compositions that were inspired by the same sentiments: the four in Besancon Museum, for example, and other series, of which four are in the museum in Munich and two are in Spanish collections. All of these contain certain elements that link them thematically to some of the lithographs of the same period. As far as portraits from this time are concerned, their scarcity indicates Goya’s growing isolation, since the only ones that he did paint were of his closest friends: men such as Dr. Arrieta, who, as has already been mentioned, appears in a portrait along with the artist himself, and also Ramon Satue and Tiburcio Pe’rez Cuervo, in whose house Rosario Weiss took refuge, and Don Jose’Duaso, in whose home the artist himself sought refuge during the early months of 1824, when he felt that he was in danger of arraignment. As well as these, he did a portrait drawing of Francisco Otin, Duaso’s nephew, and an extremely fine portrait of Maria Martinez de Puga, about whom we know nothing, but in whose portrait, by his sober composition and his brilliant use of black, Goya achieved a monumental quality similar to that of his later Bordeaux portraits.

Copyright © 1978 Arnoldo Mondadori

Special section on The Black Paintings