King Carlos IV ruled Spain from the 1780s through 1808, the latter years of the Enlightenment through the beginning of Napoleon’s invasion of and intervention in Spanish politics. Spain had fallen from a position of supreme power and influence in 1588 to a backwater with a far-flung empire in the Age of Enlightenment. The days of Cortes, Felipe II, and Cervantes had long passed. Madrid was hardly an intellectual center of Enlightenment, though Carlos Iv’s predecessor was an Enlightened monarch. In the painting above, the monarch stands with his family. One nineteenth century French critic said that the painting looked as if it was a ‘picture of the corner grocer who has just won the lottery.’ This was almost certainly not the artist’s intention. The image suggests the influence of another masterpiece of Spanish art: Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velázquez (see below).
Diego Velázquez depicts himself in the act of painting the king and queen (seen in the mirror at the back of the room). We the viewer are in the position as the subject being painted, as if we were royalty. Velázquez captures the people in the room with the artist, with the sitters only suggested. Similarly, the artist of King Carlos IV and His Family depicts himself in the background painting. Unlike Velázquez, however, this artist puts the Spanish royal family of 1800 in center stage. The style is characteristic of one of Spain’s greatest painters — Francisco Goya (1746–1828), last of the Old Masters.
Goya emerged from a humble, lower middle-class family. He took to painting early on, traveling to Italy in his teens to improve his craft. Later, he moved to Madrid. Before he was able to sustain himself as a painter, he worked as a dishwasher in Madrid’s oldest continuously operating restaurant, the Sobrino de Botin. From humble beginnings, Goya would go on to become one of the most important artists of his generation. While other artists whose lives overlapped his were either Neoclassical or Romantic, generally speaking, Goya was altogether different. His style combined the best of his teachers (like the German Mengs) and innovative techniques he developed throughout his career. Like artists of old, royal portraiture and religious subjects were among the many works he produced. Like more modern artists, however, Goya’s works became increasingly dominated by major current events of the time. Goya also began exploring the dark underside of human nature in distinct ways in his works. Perhaps the most famous exploration of this latter topics is the famous etching ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ (c.1799).
What an image to mark the artistic end of the eighteenth century! The dark underbelly of unintegrated human nature expressed by a sleeping man with ominous-looking birds and a cat in the background. The 1790s were a period of chaos for much of Europe and stultifying order in Spain. The chaos unleashed by zealous French revolutionaries was tearing the continent apart. French armies, under the banner of idealistic virtues, invaded and conquered. France went from Old Regime to demagogues, to a new tyranny under Napoleon. Spain was, until 1808, an absolute monarchy under the Bourbons, relatives of Louis XVI. The Inquisition had lost a great deal of power throughout the eighteenth century as Enlightenment ideas entered Spain and King Carlos III championed modernization to an extent. However, the fear provoked by the French Revolution saw a bit of a resurgence in the Inquisition’s power.
From the 1780s, Francisco Goya enjoyed the patronage of nobility and royalty. He became court painter in 1789, the year that the French made their terrible mistake. By the late-1790s, Goya was focusing heavily on witches and conflicted psychological states. He seems to almost intuit psychological realities of human nature that were to be explored over a century after his time.
These pictures were bought (and possibly commissioned) by a duke and duchess in Spain. They proved to be rather prophetic in terms of the subject matter Goya would pursue after the defeat of Napoleonic France. Actual witch hunting had almost entirely died out by this time and the Inquisition’s power to influence, or rather constrain, culture was exceedingly limited. Goya flirted with the fantastic elements of nascent Romanticism without buying into the superficiality expressed by so many Romantics. He was too old and experienced to fall into the trap of naivety associated with idealistic, youthful painters and poets. Romanticism really shines when balanced with something else. With Turner it was industrialism, with Goya one can see a creative exploration of once taboo subjects and, as we shall see, liberty and foreign oppression.
The 1790s brought tragedy along with artistic triumph for Goya. It was in this decade that the artist went deaf. No longer able to hear, he must have increasingly inward at least in a sense of increased focus on his thoughts and fantasies. Political events, however, would capture Goya’s attention during the most chaotic period of Spanish history in the nineteenth century. Spain had allied itself with Napoleonic France in their war against the United Kingdom in the early 1800s. The British victory over France in the decisive Battle of Trafalgar (1805) contributed to increased tension in Spanish-French relations. By 1807, France had invaded Portugal. The next year, the French turned on their former ally. The French invasion of Spain contributed to internal pressure against King Carlos IV. Carlos IV abdicated and his rather moronic son Fernando tried to claim the throne. Napoleon intervened and put his own brother on the French throne. 1808 was a catastrophe for Spain. As the French occupied Madrid, they faced increased opposition from the locals. Madrid was a powder keg.
The second of May 1808 was the day violence erupted on the streets of Madrid as the people attacked occupying French soldiers. The French were attempting to move members of the Spanish royal family and increase their power over the country. Goya painted a picture of the second of May as well as a companion piece (above)depicting the brutal aftermath. The French suppressed the uprising and then went about executing anyone they thought was associated with attacks against them. The brutality of the French is captured in grisly detail here. Though Goya did not witness the scene he depicts here, Spanish civilians were gathered together outside the city and shot.
This is an image of terror. The supposedly high ideals of the French Revolution led to that country descending into an authoritarian regime as Napoleon’s government copied many of the worst excesses of the Old Regime and exported French terror to Spain. The spirit of liberty, innocence, and resistance in the face of French oppression is expressed almost (dare I say it) perfectly in the brushstrokes of Goya. A man of the Enlightenment (and what came after), Goya knew reason’s shortcomings at a deep level. This painting is an expression of threats to true liberty by those who uphold only the image of liberty to serve as the window dressing of a new tyranny. One can see in the work both pacificism and a critique of authoritarianism.
It would be the Spanish, however, who would emerge victorious over the French war machine, with the help of the Allies, in 1814 (and again in 1815). Goya, though no longer a court painter to the king (Goya and Fernando VII did not like each other very much), still continued to innovate. He built on themes related to witchcraft with his ‘Black Paintings’ (painted c.1819–1823). These are among the greatest, and indeed most gripping, paintings of his long career.
Haunting themes, dark episodes from ancient mythologies, dark folk motifs, and the darker aspects of human nature all dominate these later paintings. Goya lived into his eighties, dying in 1828.
Francisco Goya was the last of the Old Masters. He flirted with Romanticism and even Realism (see ‘The Forge’ below). His paintings have spoken to succeeding generations at a deep level. His anti-war works heavily influenced the greatest Spanish painter since Goya — Pablo Picasso in his depiction of Guernica. Working at the turn of the nineteenth century, Goya had one foot in the Neoclassical traditions of the eighteenth century and one foot in the dynamic, even psychological paintings which came after.