Early Life and Work
After studying in Zaragoza and Madrid and then in Rome, Goya returned c.1775 to Madrid and married Josefa Bayeu, sister of Francisco Bayeu, a prominent painter. Soon after his return he was employed to paint several series of tapestry designs for the royal manufactory of Santa Barbara, which focused attention on his talent. Depicting scenes of everyday life, they are painted with rococo freedom, gaiety, and charm, enhanced by a certain earthy reality unusual in such cartoons. In these early works he revealed the candor of observation that was later to make him the most graphic and savage of satirists.
Goya possessed a driving ambition throughout his life (the only masters he acknowledged were “Nature,” Velázquez, and Rembrandt). His first important portrait commission, to paint Floridablanca, the prime minister, resulted in a painting intended to flatter and please an important sitter, heavy with technical display but less penetrating than the portraits he made of the rich and powerful thereafter. He became painter to the king, Charles III, in 1786, and court painter in 1789, after the accession of Charles IV and Maria Luisa. His royal portraits are painted with an extraordinary realism. Nevertheless, his portraits were acceptable and he was commissioned to repeat them.
Later Life and Mature Work
In 1793 Goya suffered a terrible illness, now thought to have been either labyrinthitis or lead poisoning, that was nearly fatal and left him deaf. This created for him an even greater isolation than was his by nature. After 1793 he began to create uncommissioned works, particularly small cabinet paintings. His portraits of the duchess of Alba, who enjoyed the painter's close friendship and love, are elegant and direct and not flattering. Almost all the notables of Madrid posed for him during those years. Two of his most celebrated paintings, Maja nude and Maja clothed (both: Prado), were painted c.1797–1805. Goya did his chief religious work in 1798, creating a monumental set of dramatic frescoes in the Church of San Antonio de la Florida, Madrid.
It is in the etching and aquatint media that his profound disillusionment with humanity is most brutally revealed. In 1799 his Caprichos appeared, a series of etchings in the nature of grotesque social satire. They were followed (1810–13) by the terrible Desastres de la guerra [disasters of war], magnificent etchings suggested by the Napoleonic invasions of Spain. They constitute an indictment of human evil and an outrage at a world given over to war and corruption. Two frenzied paintings known as May 2 and May 3, 1808 (both: Prado) also record atrocities of war.
Goya executed two other series of etchings, the Tauromaquia [the bullfight] and the Disparates, the flowers of a tortured, nightmare vision. Throughout the Napoleonic period Goya retained favor under changing regimes. At the age of 70 he retired to his villa, where he is thought to have decorated his walls with a series of “Black Paintings” of macabre subjects, such as Saturn Devouring His Children, Witches' Sabbath, The Dog and The Three Fates (all: Prado). While these mysterious paintings have long been among his most celebrated works, some controversial recent scholarship has indicated that the paintings may be by Goya's son or grandson. Goya's last years, harried by further illness, were spent in voluntary exile in Bordeaux, where he began work in lithography that foreshadowed the style of the great 19th-century painters.
All phases of Goya's enormous and varied production can be appreciated fully only in Madrid. However, the artist's work is also represented in many European and American collections, notably in the Hispanic Society of America, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Frick Collection, all in New York City, and in the museums of Boston and Chicago.
Used with permission. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright © 2001 Columbia University Press