Goya was a radical artist who declared, “There are no rules in painting.” In canvases of prisons and asylums, highway assaults and murder, even cannibalism, he depicted extreme and violent human behavior. Goya was one of the first political artists, and he influenced the later work of David and Delacroix. In his haunting, patriotic masterpiece The Third of May he portrayed the imminent execution of a Spanish partisan by the French invaders.
Along with Rembrandt, Goya elevated the art of etching to a new height. Goya combined direct etching with aquatint, which enhanced the dramatic possibilities of the medium. In Los Caprichos, using this new method, he parodied contemporary politics, social conventions, sexual mores, and religious hypocrisy (1). Goya was fascinated by the nightmare, as his etching The dream/sleep of reason brings forth monsters (reproduced here) exemplifies. The monsters of unfettered human aggression and irrationality were a compelling artistic theme for him, but not the only one. His two portrayals The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja involve the viewer in an exploration of sensuality. This painterly evocation of the sexual body was anticipated by Titian’s erotic Venus of Urbino and Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus but is not disguised with a pagan title. Goya was accused by the Inquisition of “obscenity” for portraying the female nude without mythological justifications.
For all his radicalism, Goya enjoyed a highly successful career as a painter to the Spanish royal court and was a favored, albeit unflinching and unflattering, portraitist of the aristocracy. In 1792, he contracted a serious illness marked by episodes of syncope, severe tinnitus, semiblindness, and disturbances of balance. Some speculate that this was meningitis, for upon his recovery he was completely deaf. Shortly thereafter, he painted two of his grimmest paintings, The Madhouse and Interior of a Prison. After Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, he created the series of etchings known as The Disasters of War, a devastating depiction of the horrors that resulted.
In his paintings and etchings, Goya plumbed many aspects of the human psyche and its pleasures and pains. His work speaks to the passions but reflects an acute awareness of the nightmare that inevitably ensues from the betrayal and abandonment of reason.